For more than a half-dozen years, we held my AL keeper league's auction at a Las Vegas hotel named after a salad. Ah, memories. But this year isn't about nostalgia for me. It's about upgrading to the new kid on the block and reaping the benefits, both in terms of real life, and fantasy baseball.
This year we chose The Encore, one of the newest properties on the strip, opting for the rookie with upside rather than an aging veteran. The accommodations, amenities and service were startlingly good, and it had "positional scarcity" working for it. Just like high-average catchers are hard to find, so are seats in Vegas during the NCAA tournament. The Encore had set aside a ballroom as a second sports book where ESPN's own Bobby Knight was holding court, so that became home base for "draft prep." Now, if I can coax Jason Bartlett and Brian Fuentes, both of whom I bought at auction, into being half as accommodating as the cabana staff at the pool, I've got back-to-back championships in the bag.
Looking back on how many of these perks I'd have missed if I hadn't tried out the "hot new property" got me thinking. When it comes to building a fantasy baseball squad that has trade potential, the same rule applies ... in spades.
Casing the Joint
But that equation flips when we talk trade value. Trade value is as much about hype as it is about numbers. Thus, when some phenom bats .457 with three homers, two steals and 11 RBIs in his first 12 games, as Jay Bruce did a year ago, people believe they are seeing the next coming of Ted Williams ... or maybe Roy Hobbs. But when Eric Hinske puts up an April OPS of 1.011 in 2008, no one will take him in a deal lest they be accused of "buying high," a supposedly serious crime in the fantasy community. But look at these two player lines for 2008.
Player A: .247 AVG, 20 HRs, 60 RBIs, 59 runs, 10 steals in 381 at-bats.
Player B: .254 AVG, 21 HRs, 52 RBIs, 63 runs, 4 steals in 413 at-bats.
Hinske is Player A. Bruce is Player B. Statistically, we're back to the twins conversation. The difference is one didn't get a single deal done a year ago and the other got you Ryan Howard or Miguel Cabrera or a host of other slow-starting stars, at least according to the hundreds of people who wrote in to apply for the, "Serious Traders, Everything Allowed League" also known as The STEAL. More on the league later. For now, let's focus on which young studs are worth grabbing for their early trade value, and which ones might not give you the kind of returns you saw for "Bruce Almighty."
Three I'm Stealing
Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers: Despite never playing above Double-A, this 20-year-old has two things going for him. First of all, the team must like Andrus a lot to tick off All-Star Michael Young by moving him to third base against his wishes. Second, the kid stole 53 bags in 118 minor league games in 2008, and I'm pretty sure the bases are the same distance apart in the majors. I don't expect Andrus to hit for any power this year, and an average in the .270s would be a victory since he's skipping Triple-A. But with plenty of sluggers in that Rangers lineup, I could see Andrus start out hot, steal 10 bags by the end of April and suddenly be every speed-starved owner's man-crush.
Emmanuel Burriss, SS/2B, Giants: A little more experienced than Andrus and a little less hyped, but the rest feels pretty similar. Burris stole 68 bases over 125 games in Class A in 2007. He then piled up 15 steals in 302 combined at-bats between Triple-A and the minors in 2008. While those numbers weren't game-changing, he's looking like the Giants' starting second sacker, and his on-base skills -- 23 walks compared to 24 strikeouts in the majors -- are well-developed. If Burriss bats eighth, as projected, his willingness to take walks in front of the pitcher could result in attention-getting steal totals early.
David Price, SP, Rays: Price getting sent down was the best thing that could have happened to owners who don't have him, because he went from untouchable to moderately touchable. I know the Rays still operate on small-market margins and thus want to see if they can tread water without Price to keep that arbitration clock from ticking. They can't, and their fan base, who finally came around to them late last summer en route to winning the AL East, isn't going to be OK with the team scuffling around .500 and falling behind the Red Sox and Yankees while Price is blowing away other teams' organizational depth. I think Price is up before May and he baffles people from the start. At that point, you can keep him or trade him for anything you want.
Three I'm Dealing
Matt Wieters, C, Orioles: Granted, this advice is really for ESPN standard leagues, because in keeper formats, trading Wieters is like selling Manhattan for some beads. But unlike David Price, Wieters is on a team that won't compete this year and thus has plenty of reason to delay their star's service time. Also, in one-catcher formats, there are 12 to 14 options at the position who can offer some power or decent average, many of whom can be grabbed in the final four rounds of 10-team drafts. If someone's willing to give you full price for a star who may get only 300 at-bats this year, you have to consider it.
Jason Motte, RP, Cardinals: This kid could strike out the side if they were swinging tennis rackets, but as the 24th relief pitcher off the board in ESPN drafts, he's getting taken ahead of guys who currently have closing gigs, despite the fact that Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa is refusing to name a true closer. I wouldn't be surprised if Motte, who has never closed for an entire season at any level, is a top-10 closer in 2010. But I see a shifting time-share this year and so there's an opportunity to deal him now, while people have visions of Jonathan Papelbon's first full season dancing in their heads.
Wladimir Balentien, OF, Mariners: This one is for deeper mixed leagues or AL-only leagues, but it still plays to the theme. Balentien has Wily Mo Pena written all over him, with his immense power and clear strike-zone judgment issues. Even real-world GMs get fooled into believing they've got the next great, young power hitter. However, if Balentien gets off to a slow start, with more K's than times on base, he won't have any value, so I like dangling him now that the DH picture is less crowded with Jeff Clement's demotion and Balentien's spring OPS hovering near 1.000.
Pulling the Job
The biggest steal I've made this year is pilfering 15 self-professed trade addicts from their home leagues to form The STEAL. We've got a couple of teenagers, a Brit who is willing to work with the time difference, and a female owner who took the player I was targeting one pick before I could in three different rounds. This past Saturday, we drafted a 16-team mixed roto league with 28-man rosters, and the first trade was made within an hour of the draft's conclusion. "Don Vito Corle-owning This League," a.k.a. Taylor Gould, stocked up on top-tier catchers early in the draft and then dealt Geovany Soto to catching-starved Andrew "The Crushinator" Lerner for Adrian Gonzalez. Personally, I'd say it was no steal either way as the two players went within 10 picks of each other at the draft.
Twelve other players have been dealt since the draft, and when I opened my e-mail Sunday, I had seven other trade offers made to me alone. I might even take one. Each one of these owners is out to prove he or she is the most devious "new kid on the block" in the GTR family. Over the coming weeks and months, you'll get to know them all.
In the meantime, make sure you have the next big thing, because as soon as they get hot, you won't just be winning your league, you'll be stealing it.
Shawn Peters is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him your own grand theft rotos by clicking here.