I’ve surveyed the wreckage of my tournament brackets (thank you, UConn), so it’s appropriate to continue with my “busts” series. I’ve covered the NL West and AL West in previous articles, so let’s continue the tour today with NL Central busts. As a reminder, I like to break down the players that I list as “busts” in three different levels:

  • Level I: Usable players who will be overpriced/overvalued on Draft Day. I wouldn’t be opposed to owning them, just not at their going rate in most leagues.
  • Level II: Players who have a major flaw that would dissuade me from owning them, barring special circumstances, or players with an existing injury that lessens their value.

  • Level III: Players I won’t touch with a 10-foot pole come draft day.

Chicago Cubs

Level I

Mark Prior/Kerry Wood: Just when Cubs manager Dusty Baker started to take some flack in the national media (well, sort of; Phil Rogers’ Chicago Tribune column also ran on for his handling of Prior and Wood, he was able to escape most of that scrutiny. The Bloviationfest…er, Congressional hearings on steroids…and the start of the NCAA tournament deflected most of the sports media’s attention away from the two injured right-handers. The Cubs are putting on a brave face with both pitchers, suggesting that Wood will only miss the Cubs’ first series of the season and that Prior will still pitch in April. Still, given the two pitchers’ recent health histories, at least a modest downgrade is in order here.

Greg Maddux: 14-24-35. That’s not my old high school locker combination, but rather the three-year progression in home runs allowed by Maddux. The home run counts from 2003 and 2004 set successive career highs for Maddux. Even though the 2004 park index for home runs at Wrigley Field was the highest in the National League (park stats courtesy of the 2005 Bill James Handbook), Maddux can’t lay all the blame for his newfound gopherball-friendly approach on his home park. He gave up 19 of his 35 homers on the road last season. Is this the year that Maddux’s streak of 15-win seasons comes to a halt?

Level II

Jerry Hairston Jr.: While Hairston improved his plate discipline last year enough to get on base at a career-high .378 clip, he also stayed on the DL long enough to lose his starting job in Baltimore to Brian Roberts. Because of that, he also lost his eligibility to play second base in most fantasy leagues, playing just 12 games there in 2004. You’ll have to slot Hairston in the outfield or at your UT slot to begin the year, and his lack of power matters in those spots.

Todd Hollandsworth: Hollandsworth has been able to play in more than 100 games in a season only four times in his 10-year career as a major leaguer, playing in just 57 games in 2004 after fracturing his shin. Meanwhile, the Cubs have said that Hairston will get playing time in the corner outfield slots, and prospect Jason Dubois is having a good spring. So while Hollandsworth begins the year as the starting left fielder, don’t expect him to finish the year as the starter or to get 400 at-bats.

Level III

Neifi Perez: Perez hit .371 in 62 at-bats with the Cubs in 2004, and the team rewarded him with another one-year deal. Would you rather bid on those 62 at-bats or consider the 4,128 he had before arriving in Chicago that show him to be a .269/.303/.380 hitter?

Cincinnati Reds

Level I

Wily Mo Pena: While he still hasn’t met a slider in the dirt he didn’t like, Pena made great strides last season. He’ll likely never draw 75 walks in a season, but he may very well hit 40 homers in one someday. Although it seems that he’s been around the Reds forever, Pena will be just 23 years old this season. This spring, he’s losing the right-field job battle–badly–to Austin Kearns, and has reverted to his old hack-tastic ways in the process, sporting an ugly 20/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Level II

Danny Graves: I’ve gone on record saying that Graves will lose his job as the Reds closer this season, despite the lack of a clear alternative on the staff. Everything about Graves’ skill set suggests a decline is coming, and when that happens, it won’t be pretty. The Reds could try to trade him, but with his contract, not even the Devil Rays–proud employers of Alex Sanchez–will be willing to take him on as their closer.

Ken Griffey Jr.: Having effectively been eliminated from my tournament pools, it’s now time to retrain my focus towards the next big pool of the year, the Ken Griffey Jr. DL Pool. I’m leaning towards June 12th for my entry.

Luke Hudson: The offseason favorite to win the fifth starter’s job, Hudson has come down with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. He’s out of the running for the job to begin the season and may end up having a lengthy rehab; remember that he had a torn labrum in 2003 as well. At best, he’s now worth stashing away on reserve, but don’t invest a precious active roster slot in the draft on him.

Level III

Jason LaRue: A common mistake made by fantasy leaguers is to ignore the batting average category. In the quest to add counting stats such as homers and RBI, they’ll take on a player like LaRue, whose batting average only hurts his fantasy team the more often he bats. Meanwhile, with the paucity of quality hitting depth at catcher in the NL, you won’t even escape paying more than the minimum for his services. Give me Yorvit Torrealba, Chris Snyder or Humberto Cota before giving me LaRue or Mike Matheny.

Joe Valentine: Until he proves that he can avoid walking the ballpark, I’m not convinced that Valentine is a legitimate closer-in-waiting, despite all of Graves’ flaws.

Houston Astros

Level I

Roger Clemens: I lost ground on the field last year by avoiding the NL Cy Young award winner, but I’m doubling my bets this season. It’s not that I doubt his ability when he’s on the mound; rather, I don’t like his chances to make another 33 starts. From an actuarial standpoint, injuries are bound to catch up with him; he’s already missed starts this spring due to a strained hamstring. Clemens’ run support is also likely to take a hit, following the departures of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent, the ongoing declines of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the continued presence of Brad Ausmus in the lineup and the offseason knee injury to Lance Berkman.

Lance Berkman: While Berkman’s progress reports in rehabbing his torn ACL have been positive, he’s still not likely to return to action until May. I opted not to retain him for $37 (in a $260 budget for 23 players) for this season in the RotoWire Staff Keeper League, an 18-team mixed league that had an inflation rate of approximately 30% on the top hitters last year. I’m curious to see how much he goes for when we have our auction on Tuesday night. If it weren’t a keeper league, I’d expect the bidding to stop somewhere in the neighborhood of $15. In a keeper league, he’ll probably go anywhere between $25-$30, depending upon the depth of the league.

Jeff Bagwell: Bagwell’s OPS has declined for five seasons in a row, dropping from 1057 in 1999 to 842 last year, his worst output since his second season in the majors. Both his batting eye and power components have dropped off. He’s still a useful fantasy player, but no longer among the elite.

Level II

Craig Biggio: Don’t get caught up in the apparent resurgence of Biggio’s power. His career-high 24 homers came at the expense of his batting eye. Keeping that power output up seems unlikely at this point, and a batting average collapse could be in the offing.

Morgan Ensberg: Ensberg is a difficult player to project. How much of his power decline (especially early in the season) was the result of an elbow injury suffered in spring training? Will Mike Lamb continue to share playing time with him at third base? Ensberg’s playing time increased after Phil Garner took over as the manager last year, although he wasn’t able to hold off Lamb entirely. We expect a better year out of Ensberg, but he won’t fulfill the 30-homer expectations we once had for him.

Level III

Brad Ausmus: Once upon a time, Ausmus offered stolen bases at a scarce position. Now he’s just an out-making machine. He’s another example of a player who hurts you the more often he plays.

Milwaukee Brewers

Level I

Geoff Jenkins: Jenkins earns a Yellow Light in the Brewers’ Team Health Report this year, on the heels of his healthiest season yet. Unfortunately, his production rates also dropped off along with the extra plate appearances, resulting in no net gains in his counting stats. Jenkins typically comes at a discounted rate in most auctions, and can still be a source of profit if you’re willing to walk the tightrope with him. Just take heed not to pay sticker price on him.

Level II

Junior Spivey: Spivey has been slow to recover from the dislocated shoulder that ended his 2004 season, having missed the Brewers’ last five spring training games. He’s not due back to action until midweek, and this might just be a foretaste of things to come. Even healthy, Spivey is unlikely to repeat his sparkling 2002 performance, and he has Rickie Weeks pushing up from the minor leagues, so his playing time window is closing fast.

David Krynzel: At this stage of his career, Krynzel essentially projects to be Scott Podsednik Lite, with better defensive skills and fewer stolen bases. His plate discipline took a step in the wrong direction last year. Krynzel will probably begin the year at Triple-A Nashville and will have to earn a platoon spot with Brady Clark in center field eventually. He’s a better keeper pick than a pick for 2005.

Level III

Victor Santos: While I don’t always put much stock in the value of second-half stats, it’s hard to ignore the 3-9 record and 5.97 ERA that Santos posted after the All-Star break in 2004. I’ll find other gambles to fill out the back of my fantasy rotation.

Chad Moeller: Moeller went for big bucks at an auction this fall at Ron Shandler’s Arizona Fall League Fantasy Baseball Symposium. Of course, we were participating in a league that embraced the spirit, if not the categories, of HACKING MASS.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Level I

Craig Wilson: Wilson caught in just four games last year, losing his eligibility at the position in most leagues for 2005. Even with Jason Kendall gone, it’s unlikely that Wilson will don the tools of ignorance much going forward. Wilson’s 29 homers from 2004 are nothing to scoff at, but they’d be a lot more valuable at catcher. Following the addition of Matt Lawton this offseason, Wilson could occasionally run into a playing time crunch if the Bucs are serious at all about finding some at-bats for Daryle Ward.

Tike Redman: Redman has three strikes working against him. The playing-time crunch brought about by the addition of Lawton gives the Pirates the option of moving Jason Bay to center field on days when they want to keep Ward in the lineup. His plate discipline actually regressed last season–he drew just 23 walks in 546 at-bats. Finally, his defense in center field drew some negative marks, despite his blinding speed. All in all, he’s a bad bet to expect as many chances in 2005.

Level II

Jose Mesa: You can read the full details in my Closers in Peril article, but I expect Mesa to lose his job as the Bucs’ closer this year. If you insist on drafting Mesa, make sure to back him up with Mike Gonzalez.

Bobby Hill: Hill, who turns 27 on April 3, has already been consigned to a utility role and is the third option to win the starting second-base job, which for all intents and purposes appears to be going to Jose Castillo. Hill still has just 430 career at-bats, and it’s looking less likely that he’ll ever get the opportunity to fulfill the expectations created after he was drafted.

Level III

Ryan Vogelsong: Vogelsong is out of options, so he’ll probably stick with the club even if he doesn’t win the fifth starter’s job this spring. Vogelsong’s brutal 2004 regular season serves as a cautionary tale about placing too much stock in spring-training results. He had a brilliant March in 2004 and ended up on a number of sleeper lists, only to reward his owners with a 6.50 ERA and 1.617 WHIP.

St. Louis Cardinals

Level I

Mark Mulder: Despite Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan’s sterling reputation for working with veterans, I’m pretty wary of Mulder this year. Mulder’s collapse at the end of 2004 hasn’t yet been adequately explained, nor has the origin of his hip injury at the end of 2003. Duncan did well to nurse Chris Carpenter back to health and 15 wins last year, so there’s some cause for hope. That said, Mulder isn’t going to come at a discount in most fantasy leagues this year, so you probably won’t see me owning him anywhere.

Jason Isringhausen: Isringhausen’s surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip in November would have been sufficient enough for me to put him on this list, but the fact that his pitching mechanics were altered enough to cause some shoulder pain in the playoffs is the clincher. While Izzy deserves credit for rebounding from his “Young Guns” years under the tender mercies of Dallas Green, there’s too much arm-injury here for me to pay full price. He picked up 47 saves last year, but I’m projecting him for only 30 this season. While that’s not a shockingly low number, it’s enough to drop him from the elite NL closers.

Level II

Matt Morris: Morris quietly had surgery this offseason to repair fraying in his right labrum. At one point, Morris was slated to be out until June, but now there’s some indication that he might even be ready for the start of the season. I’m not buying into the positive progress reports. As with Isringhausen, there’s too much history here to dismiss this as a minor procedure. Morris already declined on the mound last season, giving up 35 homers and seeing his ERA jump nearly a full point. Every once in awhile he’ll still pitch a gem, but there’s too much variance here to risk anything more than a bid of $3-4 in your auction, a price that surely won’t fetch him.

Level III

Rick Ankiel: I wanted to root for Ankiel, and even considered him to be a good endgame candidate, but his possible upside as a fantasy player, at least for 2005, is gone. I’ll still root for him, especially if the position change gives him the peace of mind that he seeks.

Jeff Erickson is the senior editor at Rotowire, and the host of XM Radio’s “Fantasy Focus,” head every weekday at 2 p.m. ET on XM Channel 175. He can be reached here.

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