Erik Johnson & Kelby Tomlinson: Deep League Wire

How do you mark the beginning of autumn? You have your choice: Labor Day has come and gone, football season is upon us and the Jewish calendar has already ushered in a new year. And the air is already starting to feel a bit chillier here in the northeast.

But we know the real indicator: it’s fantasy playoff time. Forget the sleepers, the stashers, the upside plays, the aching bodies recuperating on the injured reserve; all we care about now is who is available in deep leagues who can help the cause. Good thing we have two candidates available in a plethora of formats who fit that job description.

As usual, the players listed in this space are typically better suited for mono leagues, and the ownership percentages are by way of CBS.

Erik Johnson / SP / Chicago White Sox / 7%

The White Sox have moved to what Robin Ventura calls a “semi six-man rotation” in September, in part to give Carlos Rodon some more rest in his first MLB season. That’s opened the door for the 25-year-old Johnson to pick up some starts, and while the results in two outings thus far have been unspectacular, they’ve been solid enough to prove he can get major league hitters out.

That might not sound like the most enthusiastic endorsement, but it’s been something of a bumpy journey for Johnson over the past couple of seasons. You might remember Johnson back when he was a highly touted rookie who broke into the White Sox’s rotation at the beginning of last year, but it was a catastrophic five-start stint for the right-hander, who was nuked to the tune of a 6.46 ERA and was banished to the minors for the rest of the season. Clearly, he wasn’t ready for The Show, but it wasn’t just a case of nerves: he was annihilated in Triple-A as well after losing three miles off his fastball, and by the time 2015 rolled around, he was barely in the conversation for a major league rotation job.

But he worked on his mechanics over the offseason, and that’s translated to what’s been a very successful 2015 campaign. He started the International League’s all-star game back in July en route to being named the league’s most valuable pitcher. What were ugly strikeout-walk figures in 2014 have been forgotten in the wake of a sparkling 18% K%-BB% mark and league-leading results in ERA, strikeouts and WHIP, all while pitching in one of the International League’s harshest ballparks for pitchers.

Even with his fastball’s velocity restored, Johnson is no fireballer, peaking in the low-90s with his heater while mixing in a slider and an effective changeup, along with an occasional curveball. He doesn’t promise high-strikeout numbers at the big league level, certainly not right away, though I’ll mention he was racking them up at a better than per-inning pace in the minors this season and punched out six Twins on Friday. Of course, he also walked five hitters in that outing, ballooning his pitch count and limiting him to just five frames, and he’s also surrendered four home runs over those two starts, not a good sign for a guy pitching at U.S. Cellular Field.

But the improvement is legitimate, and there’s something to be said about Johnson getting a tryout during a time when the White Sox aren’t playing under the pressure of a pennant race. Chicago also has a soft schedule over the next few weeks: Johnson will next take the ball Wednesday against the last-place A’s, after which he’ll be due to face the last-place Tigers. As fliers go at this stage in the season, Johnson is a nice play, one that could draw the consideration of deeper mixed-league owners.

Kelby Tomlinson / 2B / San Francisco Giants / 5%

We know that when a rookie with a low-ceiling pedigree and a career .273 average in the minors suddenly is a .300 hitter in the big leagues, there’s some serious fine print to read, and in Tomlinson’s case, we don’t have to look very far: he has a .380 BABIP. But it’s not as if Tomlinson has been dropping pop flies in front of outfielders; instead, he’s been stinging the ball with a 28.8% line drive rate, and considering he had 111 plate appearances entering Monday’s action, it’s fair to start evaluating his potential to contribute in NL-only leagues down the stretch.

Tomlinson, 25, only made his major league debut on Aug. 3, but he’s already established himself as the Giants’ everyday second baseman following a back injury to Joe Panik. His game is relatively straightforward: he smacks the ball on the ground to maximize his potential for beating out base hits, and walks frequently enough to keep his OBP at respectable levels. He was also a prolific base-stealer in the minors, swiping 49 bases in Double-A last year, and he’s begun to get more daring on the basepaths, having swiped four bags this month, including two on Friday.

Even if we should expect Tomlinson’s average to start falling once his BABIP regresses, his wheels are sufficient to make him a viable candidate for good batted ball luck, and an 8.1% walk rate in the majors so far will keep helping him get on base. And it seems clear that he’s beginning to activate the stolen base aspect of his game. With a clear path to playing time, Tomlinson offers owners a solid, low-cost option for last-minute speed off the wire.

Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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