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Are You For Real? NL Central Edition

4/23/2007

We're at the three-week mark of the 2007 season, and the standings have certainly offered some surprises. One of the craziest divisions thus far has been the NL Central. The unheralded Brewers have captured first place in the Central, while the defending World Series champion Cardinals and the supposedly much-improved Cubs are near the bottom.

Mostly, this role reversal is due to certain players outperforming expectations, while others are simply not doing what their major league teams - and fantasy owners - are counting on.

You don't need us to tell you that guys like Albert Pujols and Alfonso Soriano, whose cold starts to the season have landed their clubs in the NL Central's basement, will break out of their slumps sooner and perform like the studs that they are. You also don't need us to tell you that players such as Chris Carpenter, Carlos Zambrano, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds will be very productive when healthy. But what about some of the less heralded players whose performances are driving their teams' records?

Adam Kennedy, 2B, Cardinals - Kennedy is hitting only .190 and slugging .252 with two extra base hits this season, and is consequently spending more and more time on the bench. Will Kennedy break out of his slump soon or is he in the process of losing his job to Aaron Miles?

Will: Unreal. While Adam Kennedy has been the victim of an unlucky hit percentage on balls in play (21 percent; 30 percent is league average) and I'm not going to suggest that he won't get back over the Mendoza Line, he's still not a good bet to rebound all that much. His OPS is in a three-year decline, and more importantly, he doesn't hit enough balls off the ground to experience a resurgence to double-digit homers or a helpful batting average. Kennedy is one of those ballplayers who's only good enough to truly perform at the major league level for a short period of time in his absolute prime, and that time is past for the 31-year-old. Expect Kennedy to continue to lose time to Miles in stretches all year, as manager Tony La Russa likes to play the hot hand.

Adam: Unreal. Players like Kennedy are definitely mediocre in real life, but can still hold some fantasy value based on their roles on their teams. As a cheap second-base option with some speed, he fit well on the Angels -- no manager is more aggressive than Mike Scioscia. In 2006, the Cardinals attempted 91 stolen bases, the Angels, on the other hand, attempted 205. Kennedy also hits seventh or eighth in the lineup, which limits his at-bats and runs. Even if he somehow manages to hit like he did in his prime, he's just not going to be asked to take off for second base as much as he used to, severely limiting his fantasy potential.

Wade Miller, SP, Cubs - With the additions of Ted Lilly and Rich Hill, the Cubs' 2007 rotation seemed to be in good shape. The loss of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, though, is still felt, as Wade Miller has been ineffective after winning a hotly contested spring training battle to become the team's No. 5 starter. Will Miller come around, or is he about to give way to Angel Guzman or some other youngster?

Will: Unreal. Miller has been torched for nine earned runs and 21 baserunners in 15 innings so far this season and there's not really any indication that he's going to get it together enough to give him any value -- or to keep his spot in the rotation. Unfortunately, Miller's case is that of a guy whose career has been derailed by injuries. His velocity never came back after shoulder surgery, and his control was never good enough to carry him without his best stuff. Expect to see someone else take over as the Cubs' No. 5 starter soon.

Adam: Unreal. Miller has been given a couple of chances to regain his pre-surgery productivity and has definitively proven that it is not going to happen. No. 5 starters are always on a short leash, and with the Cubs trying to win now, there's no need to be patient with a pitcher who has become a journeyman. Even pitching in an extreme pitcher's park wouldn't save Miller -- he simply cannot be recommended under any circumstances.

Derrick Turnbow, RP, Brewers - Great pitching from Claudio Vargas and Chris Capuano has helped the Brewers to first place in the NL Central, but Turnbow's been even more impressive. He has started the year among the league leaders in strikeouts per nine innings as well as fewest walks per nine. Has he really put last year's struggles behind him?

Will: For Real. Derrick Turnbow's dominance was never the issue, as even last year he struck out 69 batters in 56.1 innings. The key indicator for the hard-throwing righty has always been his control. Last year he walked, on average, 6.23 batters every nine innings, and falling behind in many counts forced him to throw a number of hittable pitches, allowing an uncharacteristically high rate of 1.28 home runs per nine as well. Turnbow's minor league career line is 3.80 walks per nine innings, so don't expect a Greg Maddux-like walk rate, but his other skills suggest that with decent control he will return to being an effective reliever. Turnbow's WHIP won't remain at 1.00, but he'll be a three-category asset in deeper leagues even if Francisco Cordero survives the season without incident. Don't sell high if you own him.

Adam: Unreal. Relievers have the highest volatility in terms of year-to-year consistency. Very rarely are relievers consistently great for more than three years, if even that, and every year you can witness formerly great relievers turn into pumpkins. To that end, it is not nearly as simple to write off a reliever's out-of-nowhere performance, whether good or bad. But with Francisco Cordero around, Turnbow is a set-up man, and with so many good middle relievers to choose from, at the very least you want to choose one who you can feel confident in. Cordero has also been one of those rare relievers who have displayed consistency (albeit with high WHIPs), so there isn't a lot of closer upside, either.

Will Harris and Adam Madison are fantasy baseball analysts for TalentedMrRoto.com. Will can be contacted at WillHarris@TalentedMrRoto.com and Adam at Adam@TalentedMrRoto.com.