So what exactly is going on in the Show Me State? Last week, my colleague Eric Karabell looked at the surprising Royals pitching staff. Meanwhile, across the state, the Cardinals are among the early leaders in the NL Central thanks to a number of players who barely got a sniff in NL-only drafts, much less standard ESPN leagues.
The big question is: Are these guys worth keeping over the long haul? Let's look at a few of the Cardinals' many early surprises on the mound and at the plate who, on average, went undrafted in most ESPN leagues, and what to expect from them the rest of the season.
With Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder still recovering from arm injuries, there were plenty of question marks beyond Adam Wainwright, the only Cardinals starting pitcher taken in most drafts. While Wainwright has lived up to expectations, the rest of the starting rotation has provided plenty of waiver-wire fodder. You can thank pitching coach Dave Duncan for reviving even more careers.
Todd Wellemeyer (owned in 41.7 percent of ESPN leagues): His 26 strikeouts through Sunday ranked him among the top 10 in the majors, slightly behind such names as Johan Santana and Jake Peavy and ahead of Carlos Zambrano and Brandon Webb. Nice company to be in. The journeyman Wellemeyer had been a middle reliever for most of his career before the Cardinals picked him up early last season and shuffled him between the rotation and the bullpen. In 11 starts with the Redbirds last year, Wellemeyer went 3-1 with a 3.65 ERA and 36 strikeouts over 49 1/3 innings. It didn't necessarily portend this hot start, but at the same time, it's not like he was coming out of nowhere (at least to the Cardinals). The strikeout rate makes him very appealing for fantasy owners for now and possibly the best bet in the rotation after Wainwright, as odd as that sounds.
Kyle Lohse (owned in 29.9 percent of ESPN leagues): The veteran righty didn't sign with the Cardinals until the middle of March, but now he's among the league leaders with a 1.48 ERA through his first four starts. That said, it's hard to get really excited about a guy whose career ERA is 4.76 and hasn't had a double-digit win season since 2003, when he went 14-11 for the Twins. While Wellemeyer is striking out guys, Lohse has just 10 K's over his first 24 1/3 innings. The key to Lohse's success so far has been avoiding base hits (20 hits in 24 1/3 innings); he has allowed more hits than innings pitched in every season of his career. You know that's not going to last. It also helped that Lohse had the fortune of facing the Giants' and Nationals' mediocre lineups, as well as the Brewers and Rockies, both of whom had gotten off to slow starts. It seems like in due time, the rest of the league will catch up to him once again.
Braden Looper (owned in 43.4 percent of ESPN leagues): The former closer won his first three starts before being smacked around by the Giants for seven runs in three innings Sunday. In his first season as a starter last year, Looper went 12-12 with a 4.94 ERA. While Looper's control has been pretty decent over his career, he's also not much of a strikeout pitcher, either (51 walks and 87 K's in 175 innings last year; 7 BB/12 K this year). Sunday's outing boosted his ERA to 5.49, so instead of him being a sell-high candidate, he now becomes a guy you can take a "wait-and-see" approach with to determine whether his early start was a fluke.
Jason Isringhausen was slightly underrated in drafts this spring because of the expectation that the Cardinals wouldn't win a lot of games, as well as his recent injury issues. When healthy, though, Isringhausen is a fine closer, which is the case right now. It's his fellow relievers leading up to him who are the big surprises.
While rookie Kyle McClellan has been a pleasant surprise racking up holds as the seventh-inning guy, veteran Ryan Franklin has thrived as Isringhausen's primary setup man. Franklin has been pitching well since joining the Cardinals last season, when he recorded 25 holds. Think of Franklin as the bullpen version of Wellemeyer, minus the strikeouts (just three total in 10 innings of work).
Another nice surprise in the bullpen is former starter Anthony Reyes, who seems to have found a home in the bullpen after a disastrous 2-14 campaign in 2007. Reyes already has a win and a save under his belt, although he's not going to be used as often as Franklin or McClellan, in case you were thinking there would be more vulture wins or save chances in his future. He can be used as the long man, with two 3-inning relief outings this year already. That's why Reyes' 2.1 percent ownership in ESPN leagues is questionable, compared to nearly zero percent ownership for McClellan or Franklin. All of these guys, though, would be useful factors in very deep or NL-only leagues in which middle relievers have value.
Albert Pujols is doing just fine once again, even with his elbow issues. Chris Duncan is actually hitting for average, and Rick Ankiel is still hitting homers. However, the Cardinals are utilizing platoons to perfect advantage so far this season, which is why all five of their outfielders have positive fantasy value.
Ryan Ludwick (owned in 54.2 percent of ESPN leagues): Yet another journeyman who found a home with the Cardinals last year, paving the way for bigger things this season. Ludwick hit 14 homers in 303 at-bats with the Cardinals last year, but few would've believed he'd open the season by hitting .391 with four homers (tied with Pujols and Ankiel for the team lead) and 11 extra-base hits in 46 at-bats. Despite the hot start, Ludwick has seen more bench time than you'd think; he seems to be on the wrong side of the lefty/righty platoon in right field with Skip Schumaker, although his lefty/righty splits might suggest otherwise (.300, 3 HRs, 3 RBIs against lefties; .478, 1 HR, 8 RBIs against righties). As the main right-handed bat among the outfielders, he'll see his share of at-bats against lefties, but he definitely deserves to be in there against righties as well.
Skip Schumaker (owned in 15.0 percent of ESPN leagues): After hitting .333 in 177 at-bats last season, Schumaker was a surprise winner of the starting right field job and the leadoff spot in the Cardinals' lineup. It has been a nice start for him so far (.317 average, .406 OBP with three steals), although he doesn't appear to have the same fantasy upside as the rest of the outfielders. Still, the Cardinals are committed to getting Schumaker in the outfield, especially with the questionable gloves of Duncan (and arguably Ankiel) usually roaming out there. Schumaker's long-term value for the year will depend on whether he can get on base on a regular basis at the top of the lineup. He's a marginal play in standard ESPN leagues but a solid pickup in deeper leagues.
Brian Barton (owned in 0.2 percent of ESPN leagues): With defensively challenged players such as Duncan and Ankiel in the outfield, Barton has been getting plenty of action as a late-inning replacement, which would explain why he has played in 15 games but has just 28 at-bats. Still, in that time, he's hitting .321. Unfortunately, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts Sunday, which doesn't bode well for his keeping up his nice stats to start the season.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.