Grand Theft Roto: Spring Thoughts

Inspiration comes in many forms. A song, a rainbow, Anna Kournikova, circa 1999. But when inspiration proves to be elusive as an Anna Kournikova singles title, circa ... whenever, one must search it out at a bad Chinese buffet.

So with what felt like a pound-and-a-half of General Gao's Chicken doing military exercises in my stomach Sunday night, I opened up a crumbling, stale, mobius-strip of dough known as a fortune cookie, removed the piece of paper and read.

"Don't let the statistics do a number on you."

Suddenly, I had my "all-you-can-write" buffet. Spring stats. Of course! Just like Chinese food, one can fill up on them and be left wanting down the road.

So here's how you turn a "spring roll" by a mediocre player into a serving of "sweet and pungent production."

Casing the Joint

Anyone who says, "Spring training stats mean nothing!" is a liar.

If you're a Rule 5 outfielder who should've been in the big leagues years ago if it weren't for a series of Robert Downey Jr.-esque off-field issues, then your spring training stats matter.

And if you're a prospect who had your sophomore slump your rookie season and your manager already has said you'll either start in centerfield or return to Triple-A, you're not using spring to get ready for the season. You're using spring to have a season to get ready for.

In short, spring training stats matter a lot for Josh Hamilton and Brian Anderson. They just shouldn't matter much in terms of how you, a shrewd, cagy, ruggedly handsome fantasy owner, evaluate a player's ability to put up the same stats once the games count.

Sure, I'll look to see which established players are locked in already and spend an extra buck to acquire their hot start. Vernon Wells is showing that he isn't a "take-the-money-and-slump" guy with 4 homers already, and John Lackey is fueling the breakout season talk with 15 K's in 12 innings.

It's also fair to check out prospects who last until the end of spring training to see who played well enough to earn a call-up as soon as a big leaguer goes down with an injury. For example, I'll be waiting for Philly's Michael Bourn to retourn ... er ... return because he could easily steal 20 bags as a fourth outfielder.

But beyond that, I'm not correlating spring success and regular-season value. Instead, I look for players who so severely overachieve or underachieve, they present an opportunity to sell high or buy low before anyone has ever actually played a game.

As of Wednesday, Jeff Francoeur was batting .390 with 3 HR already this spring, and no doubt he has the power potential to be rostered in most formats. But we're talking about a guy who batted .260 last year and took only 23 walks all season. He doesn't have the eye to support a .290 average, let alone one 100 points higher, and last year, he didn't bat .300 in any month of the season. But you don't have to mention that when shopping him. Instead, talk about how he worked in the off-season on being getting better pitches to hit (every batter is looking for better pitches to hit, so it's not a lie) and pimp his Rod Carew impersonation as a new leaf he's turned over.

Meanwhile, San Diego's Mike Cameron is batting a piddling .182 with only one homer. He too, is a low-average outfielder with some pop, just like Francoeur, but the difference is Cameron has some real on-base skills, as evidence by a lifetime .342 OBP that's 90 points above his career BA. And oh yeah ... Cameron is fast. Real fast. He's only had one season with 375 or more AB's where he didn't steal 22 or more bases. So unlike Francoeur, he can help your team even when he isn't hitting homers.

Neither player's role is going to be affected by spring stats, but their perception might. Make the deal and get a four-category player for the price of a three-category player.

Kevin Millwood got off to a late start this spring, but he's looked good. Another good start and he might start climbing draft boards. But he's still a guy who has never struck out 160 batters in the AL, and he still plays his regular season games in the Best Little Scorehouse in Texas.

Meanwhile, Javier Vazquez, in his nine-year career, has given up only 13 more hits than innings pitched in total. So when I see a spring ERA over 11.00 and him giving up 20 hits in 11 innings, I smile a little bit inside. It's a "value" smile, because he's also struck out 10 and only given up one home run. His 2007 ERA isn't going to exceed the highest volume on Nigel Tufnel's amp and he's not going to give up two hits per inning. So if Vazquez's owner is worrying a little, make him worry a lot, and offer him Millwood, who hasn't been touched this spring.

A few other names you might want to toss out if you find a sucker ... er ... partner who puts too much stock in spring stats include Nick Markakis (a fine player but being valued as if he's Grady Sizemore thanks to a 900-plus spring OPS), Ryan Zimmerman (a parasol in a hailstorm offers more protection than that Nationals lineup), Geoff Jenkins (dominating this spring, but so is Kevin Mench) and Tom Glavine (that 1.29 ERA was recently spotted with Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster and Pamela Anderson's bust … three other things that aren't real.)

You might get declined or ruffle a few feathers. But you also might get a stud who views spring training as something to do in between rounds of golf.

Pulling the Job

I made only one deal this past week, and it was in my "home" league, a 5x5 AL keeper league where keeper lists were due last Friday afternoon. With the deadline approaching and my team loaded with a bunch of guys at value, but not much top tier talent to retain, I projected each team's keepers and saw that we were looking at some serious inflation at our auction. With $350 to spend than talent in the pool, I could see a scenario where the top 20-30 guys in the draft could go for $8-to-10 above their production level.

So I made a move and approached an owner who seemed nervous about how much money he'd have at the draft, offering up Brian Anderson at $5 and Jeff Mathis, also at five, for Brian Roberts at $24.
I was able to talk up Anderson's spring stats (that's synergy, kids) and it became clear the other owner wasn't high on Roberts.

I am.

After returning from that nasty elbow injury late in 2005, Roberts was two different guys in 2006. He hit one homer in the first half and nine homers after the break, suggesting that he was returning to the form that made him an MVP candidate back in the first half of 2005. I'm projecting him to hit 16-20 homers and steal 30 bags. Considering the lack of depth at second, and the excess of cash in the league, I could've seen him going for $30 in our draft.

We agreed on the terms and the deal only got better for me hours later when my trading partner didn't keep Mathis. Then the next day, Ozzie Guillen started telling reporters that Darin Erstad was getting 500 AB's this season, meaning Anderson could be headed for the minors.

But was giving up a cheap, promising young player for an expensive, five-category infielder a Grand Theft Roto?

Usually, I'd ask my consigliere, Zach Messler, but he's laid up. I'm not saying a rival gang tried to take him out, but I will say he ended up in the hospital, swearing revenge …and asking for narcotics.

So step up for the consigliere, and let me know, all you wiseguys and potential button-pushers, whether I did the family proud.

And remember, don't just win your league. Steal it.

Shawn Peters is a TV and advertising writer, as well as a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He's also been nominated for four FSWA awards and writes ESPN.com's weekly fantasy golf column, Fantasy Fore. If you've got questions, or want to share a recent rip off you pulled, drop him a line at GrandTheftRoto@talentedmrroto.com . If you want to tell him he's a moron, the line forms to the left.