Sliders: It's suddenly a Brave new world

Atlanta began as a railroad hub and has made transportation its business ever since, tying together three major interstate highways and the busiest airport on the face of the planet.

No wonder so much talent is escaping.

Perhaps it went unnoticed amid all the hustle and bustle at the start of the season, but in the heart of the city, at the corner of unexpected and ridiculous, waiver wire central opened for business, creating a steady flow of storylines both miraculous and frustrating.

You'll see it reflected in this week's Sliders. Through a series of developments by no means planned or intentional, players forever tied to the city's string of championship runs have simultaneously come roaring back to form -- in some cases several years after the Braves decided to pass on them, deeming them too old, too expensive or too much effort.

Too bad.

For the Braves, maybe, but not for Fantasy owners. Unexpected production is the kind that fills out championship rosters. It comes with perpetual skepticism, leaving the door open for you to snatch up -- either by trade or waiver claim -- every presumed has-been and never-was to don a Braves uniform.

And oh yeah, Jeff Francoeur isn't one of them -- not yet, anyway.

Sliders ... These players are more than just hot or cold. Their recent play indicates a long-term change in value.

Kelly Johnson , 2B, Diamondbacks

It started with two homers April 7. It continued with two more Friday.

By the time it ended Sunday, the MLB leader in both slugging percentage and OPS wasn't Albert Pujols , Joe Mauer or Ryan Howard . It was Johnson, a player considered such a waste of time a year ago that he lost his starting job to career utility infielder Martin Prado .

Even worse, the Braves non-tendered Johnson in the offseason, unwilling to pay him whatever small amount he'd earn in arbitration coming off such a miserable season.

He was a lost cause, a complete afterthought in Fantasy. But fortunately for Fantasy owners, the Diamondbacks knew to capitalize.

See, the surprise with Johnson was more his performance last year than his performance this year. Or at least it should have been. After the way the Braves handled him, you'd never know it.

They grew impatient with Johnson. Wanting to see consistent rather than sporadic power from him, they discouraged the patient approach that made him so enticing in the first place. It messed with his mind, warped his God-given instincts and made him a flailing mess of a hitter.

The Diamondbacks have taken a more hands-off approach.

"I don't think about them," Johnson said Sunday about his four homers in three games. "I won't think about them. I think about them as much as I think about the strikeout. Once it happens, I'm on to the next one. I'm just going to try and keep that going and hope they keep flying out."

That's the ticket, Kelly. Less thinking, more producing the way your natural progression suggests you should.

Up to this point, Johnson's career has closely modeled Aaron Hill . Both came up as top prospects. Both made slow progress, homering in the teens at first. Both lost a year to head issues -- either physical or mental. Both exploded for 30 homers once they returned? Well, only time will tell.

But after his hot start, 20-25 homers seems a foregone conclusion for Johnson, and those numbers combined with his high walk rate would make him too valuable to sit in Fantasy.

Rafael Furcal , SS, Dodgers

"Furcal is the easy answer here. No clue what anyone still sees in him."

Those words, spoken with dismissive confidence, came straight from the mouth -- er, fingertips -- of yours truly in a Dodgers team outlook early this spring. I was referring to bust candidates.

Nice call there, chief.

Look, I had good reason. Furcal was nothing short of a disaster last season. He didn't offer much power, slumping to nine homers instead of his usual 12-15. He didn't offer much speed, slumping to 12 steals instead of his usual 25-30. He didn't offer anything useful in any one category. And considering he was coming off back surgery, which tends to do more harm than good, and approaching his 32nd birthday, which is about the time Edgar Renteria and other notable shortstops began to decline, everything about him screamed over and done.

But then the season started, and with it a whole new chapter of his career.

Furcal's eight stolen bases, perhaps the greatest indicator of his vitality, put him two-thirds of the way to last season's total and on pace for a career high. He has yet to homer, but his five doubles and two triples show the life in his bat has returned, giving him a slugging percentage (.429) better than his career mark of .408 and an OPS (.812) that would be the second highest of his career if it continues over a full season.

So will it? Probably not. But nobody's asking Furcal for a career season, just a bounce-back season. And considering he never once performed at this level last season, you can pretty safely chalk up those numbers to continued recovery from back surgery and assume his current performance is the result of him defaulting back to his career norms. I don't know that I'd even call him an injury risk considering he played in 150 games last year.

In other words, despite having a different attitude on him just three weeks ago, I've already seen enough from Furcal to welcome him and his balky back back.

Sorry for the back-to-back backs.

Andruw Jones , OF, White Sox

How's this for a steep decline? Jones, a five-time All-Star, hit only .207 over the last three seasons.

That's one way to remove yourself from Fantasy relevance.

It's also one way to remove yourself from major-league relevance, which is why Jones' agent, Scott Boras, finally threw tact out the window this offseason and told Jones what even the most casual observer knew all along: He needed to get in shape.

Really, it took that long?

Even if Jones had heard it before, he didn't listen until now, shedding 25 of the most inhibiting pounds you'll ever see. The results speak for themselves.

If his .292 batting average, six home runs and 1.112 OPS haven't won you over -- and considering his hot start last year, perhaps they shouldn't -- his seven stolen bases between spring training and the first three weeks of the season should -- not so much because he needs them to remain a viable option but more because he couldn't get them if he hadn't undergone a legitimate transformation.

Will he go 20-20 this season? Who cares? The point is he's doing something he was physically incapable of doing last season, which shows how much his weight loss has improved his strength, energy and vitality.

The White Sox see it, allowing him to play center field after the Rangers couldn't trust him to play anywhere in the outfield last season. They also want to take full advantage of his hitting, ending his platoon with Mark Kotsay and moving him up to the three hole.

Jones' sudden decline never made sense considering his age, and three years later, we finally have an explanation for it: The guy wasn't treating his body the way a professional athlete should. Now that he is, he can get back to being one of the best all-around players in the game. The mere chance of a resurgence makes him worth grabbing in any league where he remains unowned.

Somebody should have told him he was fat a long time ago.

Nate McLouth , OF, Braves

All that talent escaping Atlanta, and this is what's left behind? Yuck.

In fairness, the Braves haven't given McLouth much opportunity to end the yuck, which is more the reason for downgrading him than the yuck itself.

What is yuck, you ask? Try a .118 (6 for 51) batting average this spring and a .146 (6 for 41) batting average this season. Yuck.

Still, every player slumps. It's an unavoidable sickness, and the only way to cure it is to let it run its course. That's where the trouble comes in for McLouth. The Braves won't let it run its course, continually sitting him against left-handed pitchers just because he happens to bat left-handed. For some reason, they believe Melky Cabrera has more of a right to play every day than McLouth does even though McLouth is a former All-Star coming off back-to-back 20-20 seasons (OK, he finished one stolen base short during an injury-plagued 2009) and Cabrera is, well, Cabrera -- a product of the Yankee hype machine who offers modest power and speed. Think Fred Lewis , only with a little more plate discipline.

Part-time players don't have much value in Fantasy -- particularly slumping ones, who tend to keep slumping because of the inconsistent at-bats -- so I don't see much reason to hang on to McLouth in mixed leagues. Maybe if the Braves trusted him to break out of his slump, batting him leadoff and playing him in center field every day, I'd like him as a Hanging Slider and tell you to stick with him, but instead, they're going all Kelly Johnson with him.

We've seen what happens with that approach.

Barry Zito , SP, Giants

OK, so Zito doesn't have any connections to Atlanta, but the lead got you this far, didn't it? If you don't like it, sue me.

Besides, Zito's hot start makes him a worthy interruption to an otherwise unified column. Maybe you could dismiss it when he was showing up the Astros and the Pirates, but when he starts mowing down the Cardinals -- as in Albert Pujols , Matt Holliday and company -- you have to pay attention.

That's exactly what he did with eight shutout innings Saturday. He allowed three hits with three walks and 10 strikeouts in not only his best start of this season, but of the last seven seasons.

Really, his resurgence began in the second half last year, when he posted a 2.83 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over his final 15 starts. Why didn't anybody notice then? Well, his first half was pretty debilitating, skewing his overall numbers. Besides, pitchers in their early 30s don't usually reinvent themselves, so nobody was really watching.

But people are watching now, and deservedly so. Something's different about him.

The hot start is evidence in and of itself. Throughout his career, Zito has always needed a few weeks to find the break on his curveball, which explains his career 4.82 ERA in April, by far his highest of any month. Even during his Cy Young campaign in 2002, he had a 4.81 ERA over the first month.

But here we are at the end of April, and it's 1.32. If that's not a sign of the times, I don't know what is.

Time to buy into Zito if you still can.

Hanging Sliders ... These guys look like Sliders, but alas, they really are just streaking.

David Wright , 3B, Mets

What more do you want, people?

I get it. Wright slumped to 10 homers last year. It was both weird and worrisome. But it's over now. He has three homers already, which is more than he had in any month last year. Crisis averted. Problem solved. Raise the roof. Let's go home.

Wait, what's that? He's hitting only .220? Not again!

No, not again. The same thing isn't happening here. In fact, nothing notable is happening here. Wright goes through stretches where he hits .220 sometimes, just like any other player.

What, like he's going to collapse in some random category every year? Last year, it was homers. This year, batting average. Next year, RBI? Where's the logic in that?

Did you ever stop to consider that, with his career .274 batting average in April being his lowest of any month, maybe slow starts are nothing new for him? Of course not. You just freaked out.

Wright is fine and will end up performing like a top-five third baseman in Fantasy this season. You have no reason to sell low on him or to scramble to find a replacement.

Carlos Silva , SP, Cubs

Even during Silva's "good" years with the Twins, when he went 47-45 with a 4.42 ERA over four seasons, he allowed an unsightly 11 hits per nine innings and recorded a laughable 3.6 strikeouts per nine. As one of the most hittable pitchers in baseball, he was a house of cards waiting to tumble once the luck ran out.

And it ran out in Seattle, where he went 5-18 with a 6.81 ERA over two seasons. The ERA and win-loss record caught up to the peripherals, and all was right with the world.

But then the Cubs entered the scene radiating optimism, convinced they could bring him back to his "old ways," hittable as they were.

OK, fine. Maybe he can be that pitcher again if he gets lucky enough, but that pitcher is so different from this one that I have a hard time believing the Cubs brought him anywhere.

Through four starts this year, Silva has allowed 5.9 hits per nine innings. His career best as a starting pitcher is 10.1. He has recorded 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings. His career best is 4.1.

You get the picture? This isn't Silva even at his so-called best. He's having good luck on top of good luck right now or perhaps benefiting from a league that hasn't seen much of him yet. When either one of those factors change, disaster will follow. Consider this your tornado watch. By the time the warning comes, your ERA and WHIP might already be in ruins.

This guy is such a pretender that anyone who claims to believe in him is also just pretending.

That's the hope, anyway.

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