Mike Aviles (2B/3B - KC): After an extremely slow start to the season, Mike Aviles has gotten it going again. Aviles went 3-5 with a HR and 4 RBI's on Sunday improving his 2011 line to .250/.289/.539. Just from the triple slash line you'll notice the extreme power output from Aviles early in the season. Traditionally a contact-oriented line drive hitter, it appears Aviles has made adjustments in his swing to create more loft. His FB Rate is at a career best 51% and about 15% above his career averages. The result has been an increased strikeout rate but also far more power. Aviles picked up his 11th extra base hit of the season on Sunday in just over 80 PA's. Last year he needed nearly 450 PA's to get to 27 extra-base-hits. While the adjustment has cost him some points in batting average, it may have made Aviles a more valuable fantasy asset. He's currently on pace for a 25 HR-25 SB season with the .250 average. Over time I expect we'll see the average climb a bit and the power fade, but the change is a noteworthy one for those looking for 3B replacements in the aftermath of losing Sandoval or Zimmerman. Aviles could be a source of power and speed with multi-position eligibility.
Johnny Damon (OF - TB): I've been getting a lot of questions on twitter about Johnny Damon as a potential pickup as his strong start to the season has helped him float towards the top of FA lists. It's been a rather unusual circumstance of events that's led to Damon's strong fantasy start. He's actually taken a significant step back in his skills but due to the timing of his performance posted decent fantasy value. Damon's BB Rate has slipped to under 5% and his K Rate has jumped above 19%. A career 19% LD hitter, Damon's posting a LD Rate of just 14% this year, with a GB Rate of 48%. Despite hitting fewer balls squarely and fewer in the air he's actually seen his ISO tick back up a little bit (something I wouldn't expect to continue). The swing data shows continued deterioration in his pitch selection and his swinging strike %. So how has Damon been so good early on? Well he's hitting .321/.367/.464 with RISP and he's had the benefit of having 36% of his PA's come with RISP. Both numbers are unsustainable and over time we'll see Damon regress towards a .260-70-13-70-10 type pace, that really should be reserved for AL Only leagues or 14 team and deeper formats. Those in traditional 10 and 12 team mixed leagues should be careful investing in Damon. His peripherals suggest he's in line for a significant slowing in production.
Dustin Pedroia (2B - BOS): While we're on the topic of struggling Red Sox players, let's touch on Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia picked up 2 hits yesterday to raise his average to a meager .265. Unlike Crawford, Pedroia's slow start has been impacted by deterioration in his peripherals. Pedroia's swinging at 5% more pitches outside the zone and most concerning has seen his contact rate drop over 10% overall and over 15% in the strike zone. Pedroia's been noted for his elite hand-eye skills for much of his career and has posted very consistent contact rates, always above 90% overall. It's a bit perplexing to see such a significant drop-off in contact rates for a guy who built his career on it. His LD rates and power have also been affected in a negative fashion. He's right in the midst of his prime years, so it's hard to imagine this will continue for much longer, but unlike players whose slumps are largely luck-driven, Pedroia's is more deterioration in skill. As a Pedroia owner, I'm not acting on this news (as there's few 2B I'd rather have when right), but I am concerned.
Matt LaPorta (1B/OF - CLE): If you're looking for an interesting stash option with upside, take a deeper look at Matt LaPorta. LaPorta was the key piece in the CC Sabathia deal a couple years back and was considered an advanced minor league prospect that would move quickly. It hasn't quite worked out that way as LaPorta has struggled adapting to major league pitching, specifically hitting for the big power he posted in the minors (.953 minor league OPS). This year the power has been there (.234 ISO) as he's improved his BB Rate and cut his K Rate. All the signs of a potential breakout are there, but we haven't seen it due in large part to a .254 BABIP. LaPorta's not a great LD hitter and as a result his career BABIP of .259 suggests the .254 BABIP might not be just bad luck. I have a hard time believing it thought given his career BABIPs in the minors were always more normalized (towards .300). While there might not be more batting average upside beyond .260, the power looks legitimate. With improving peripherals we could see a breakout season for LaPorta, something along the lines of .260-70-25-75, making him a worthy OF option in 12-team leagues and deeper. The upside is capped by the batting average issues, but the power is legitimate. He's improved his FB Rate and his ISO early in the season and at age 26 is entering his power prime. He's worth a stash for those in 12 team leagues and deeper.
Zach Britton (SP - BAL): Britton locked down his 5th quality start in 6 outings on Sunday as he limited the White Sox to 1 ER on 5 hits and 3 BB's, while striking out just 1. We've noted some of the shaky indicators surrounding Britton as a reason to be cautious but he keeps charging ahead. A correction will eventually come as Britton's 80% LOB% and .250 BABIP are well beyond league averages. To Britton's credit he doesn't allow a lot of hard hit balls (14% LD Rate, 57% GB Rate) which can certainly help fool peripherals for an extended period of time, but eventually the numbers will regress. The concerning part for me as a Britton owner is the fact the peripherals are getting worse. Britton's struck out just 6 in his last 18 innings and walked 8 during that span. He'll get a suddenly red-hot Tampa Bay lineup that he dominated in his first outing of the season next week, a matchup that on paper looks alright, but one I'll be sitting out. When peripherals are due for a correction and a pitcher's facing a hot offense, I'll pass. Long-term Britton's got the chance to be a Derek Lowe type from a fantasy perspective and he might even be that this year, but that means he's not the guy with the 2.63 ERA we've seen so far. Tread carefully.