- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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It sounds so simple: Identify a top-shelf player off to a struggling start, persuade his owner to trade him to you at a deep discount, then reap the rewards when his rest-of-year numbers return close to or at past levels.
Yes, it's that easy to execute the buy-low trade, right?
Wrong. The mistake many fantasy owners make is to embrace a casual approach to their trade strategy. Beyond mere targeted-player evaluation, one must consider his/her trade counterpart's needs, said counterpart's player opinions (if easily obtained, if not, it's not difficult to ask), and the value of the players being peddled in exchange. It's nowhere near as simple as picking a hot-starting, out-of-nowhere name -- let's say a Charlie Blackmon, for instance -- and attempting to swap him for a floundering preseason stud. In fact, offering Blackmon up in the wrong deal could have adverse consequences; aim too high and you run the risk of an "Are you crazy?!" reply that assures you won't complete any such deal with your trade partner (today for sure, and perhaps not a single time the remainder of the season).
Let's use history to illustrate the challenge of the buy-low landscape.
On this date, 10 years ago, Derek Jeter sported a seasonal stat line of .181/.252/.241 with one home run and two stolen bases in 27 games. Using the so-called "buy-low" strategy, one might've assumed he'd cost a barely-rosterable commodity, sending Jeter's owner a potentially offensive trade offer. Worse: You might've even sent said offer with a note of attempted justification. Hint: If you feel a need to justify your trade, you're admitting it's a lowball offer.
What did Jeter do from May 7 on? Simple: He batted .317/.374/.522 with 22 home runs, 21 stolen bases and 101 runs scored in 127 contests, one of only five players with at least 20/20 numbers from that date forward. Jeter was one of fantasy's most valuable players, and if you approached the trade table wisely, you'd have been in tremendous shape that season.
The point wasn't to look at what Jeter had done through May 6 and lowball; the idea was to examine why Jeter had struggled, determine whether it was likely to continue, then realistically value his rest-of-year projections and offer a player in that price range. This, most commonly, would be a player who wasn't rated far off Jeter's preseason price; it might be one ranked two to five spots lower among shortstops, depending upon that player's performance to date. You are attempting to upgrade discreetly while acquiring sure-to-improve, rest-of-season statistics, not get away with highway robbery.
That's just the point: Do your homework when it comes to trade proposals. Every player has a price; you need spend as much time determining market value for your own as your trade counterpart's players, and you need to do so without bias on either side. Perhaps most important, you also need determine whether these "buy-low" bets truly fit the description; that means an examination into whether their slow starts are likely to continue.
I'll help you with some of that. Listed below are 12 players who have vastly underperformed preseason expectations, the criteria for that being at least 250 spots' decline in Player Rater comparative to average draft position (ADP) ranking. Some of these players are obvious trade targets, some not. Most critically, some slow-starting players are also obvious trade targets to their own owners, meaning you're not going to acquire them cheaply at all.
It's for that reason that I'm providing a grade for each in this dozen, which is meant to demonstrate both how attractive and how likely you'll be able to buy low on them. The goal is not just to provide you with your buy-low list; it's also to help you gain greater ability to master the strategy.
Homer Bailey (A): Wouldn't it be nice if there was one nice, clean statistic to outline Bailey's buy-low case? Oh, wait, there is: His 3.29 xFIP, which is right in line with his 3.34 number from 2013 and tosses all his K's/walks/hit batsmen/fly balls performance to date into the proverbial blender and gives a truer sense of his pitching skill. Bailey has been ruined by bad luck (.388 BABIP, 19.4 home run/fly ball percentage), bad matchups and bad weather, and every time I go back trying to find some significant skill of his to criticize, I find myself grasping at straws. I've even dropped him 10 spots among starting pitchers and 25 overall merely compensating for his struggles against lefties, and didn't feel good doing it. I see no reason to change my all-in stance, not yet.
Eric Hosmer (A-): That he had giant doughnuts in the home run and stolen base columns entering Monday's play was frustrating, yes, but there's little else in Hosmer's statistical profile that suggests a need to downgrade his fantasy stock. He's still doing all the little things I've cited in the past as growth indicators: He's hitting fewer grounders (50.0 percent, down from 53.6 in 2013), pulling the ball less (29.5 percent of balls in play, easily his lowest in any of his four seasons) and missing less often, especially on pitches in the strike zone (9.6 percent, down from 13.8 in 2013). I'd be more bothered by Hosmer's hesitance on the basepaths rather than his lack of power, if I must nitpick, because homers can come in bunches. Was Monday the beginning of that?
Jim Johnson (A-): He's a pitcher who relies almost entirely upon command and pitch selection; during his poor first five outings of 2014 he issued six walks in 3 1/3 innings. Since then, however, he has amassed 10 1/3 scoreless frames behind a 4.5-1 K-to-walk ratio, moving himself near the front of the Oakland Athletics' closer committee. I've cited countless times before that Johnson has a history of stringing together several awful outings, yet performing at an extraordinary level the remainder of the year. He appears "fixed," and this is probably your last chance to secure 30 rest-of-year saves cheaply.
Carlos Santana (B+): I've speculated previously that him not having one consistent position to play has worked to his detriment; he has made 15 starts at third base, nine at designated hitter, six at catcher and one at first base and hasn't made more than back-to-back starts at any one spot yet. But if there's anything truly troubling about Santana, it's his performance batting left-handed: He's hitting .138/.317/.262 from that side with a .123 well-hit average and 52.0 percent ground ball rate. That's what's limiting his grade, because Progressive Field requires he recapture his left-handed power swing if he's to return to top-five catcher status. But I think Santana can do it, because he's still walking a lot, missing no less often and chasing fewer non-strikes than usual.
Martin Prado (B+): Well, this is (seemingly) distressing. Prado sports a career-high 17.0 percent strikeout rate, and his 24 total K's are more than a quarter of his single-season high (86, in 2010). Here's the problem: Twelve of those 24 K's came on pitches outside the strike zone, an unusually high number for him, though let's not forget that a year ago on this date he was batting .234/.284/.358 with an elevated -- albeit not so much as this -- 12.2 percent K rate. Still, Prado hasn't had a "good" April since 2010 (.356/.422/.478), typically starting slowly but batting at least .297 from May 7 forward in four of his past five seasons (all except 2011). His multiposition eligibility, too, is a huge plus.
Prince Fielder (B): You might've expected a better grade for a player we ranked 14th overall as a group, one who ranked 12th in terms of ADP, in the preseason, but therein lies the danger of clinging too long to preseason stock. Remember, I've mentioned previously the fluidity of the 2014 ranks beyond the top four players overall -- those Nos. 5-25 -- and here's one way to illustrate: The difference in average auction value between the No. 5 player (Clayton Kershaw) and No. 26 (Felix Hernandez) was $14.8. Fielder fell squarely in the middle of this group, and any optimism was rooted in his fresh circumstances in a loaded Texas Rangers lineup and a hitters' heaven in Globe Life Park. Fact is, he's not the same player he was a few short years back. Fielder is hitting more grounders than before -- he has a 51.0 percent rate, up from 40.5 percent in 2013 -- and he's pulling the ball more -- 37.0 percent of balls in play, up from 36.0 percent in 2013 and 33.9 percent in 2012 -- and that's resulting in a significantly greater number of defensive shifts to compensate. And if you know anything about lefties and shifts, you know that Fielder's .255 BABIP (and resulting .231 batting average) are more truthful than fluky. He provided optimism with one of his best games of 2014 on Sunday, but don't mistake him for a top-25 overall player anymore. Proper valuation is closer to No. 30-50 overall, and Fielder's owners might not yet be ready to cash in that cheaply.
Pablo Sandoval (B-): A thinner Panda hasn't resulted in the breakthrough campaign many expected, and to date, he has distressing numbers in terms of strikeout rate (21.3 percent) and well-hit average (.127). One thing -- astutely pointed out recently on FanGraphs -- that appears to have changed for Sandoval is a painfully excessive level of patience: He has swung just 29.5 percent of the time at first pitches; he's normally a conservative swinger in those counts (42.3 percent since 2009), but that's awfully low even for him, especially because it means that in 66 of his 122 PAs to date, he has immediately fallen behind in the count. That sure sounds fixable, though, and I'm willing to afford Sandoval the opportunity to do so.
Everth Cabrera (C+): Loyal readers surely recall my interest in Cabrera this season, as I stressed he had that combination of speed and strike-zone judgment that made him a legitimate 50-steal candidate beyond the 10th round. Sadly, Cabrera is on pace for just 20 steals (he's 4-for-7 in attempts), but it's the walks -- just four, or a 2.9 percent rate -- that bother me most. As with Sandoval, Cabrera has been painfully patient on first pitches -- he has swung 23 percent of the time, resulting in 61 counts of 0-1 in 139 trips to the plate, and in his career he's a .177 hitter when behind in the count. Though I've dropped him a noticeable amount in my rankings to compensate for his struggles, Cabrera also might have needed some time to recapture his form after missing 50 games late in 2013. I think whatever ails him is fixable.
Allen Craig (C): I'm not sure entirely what to expect here, because Craig showed signs of life with a 7-for-13, two-homer series against the Milwaukee Brewers April 28-30, only to subsequently go 1-for-12 with eight ground ball outs the past three days. The latter is bothersome; Craig has a whopping 62.1 percent ground ball rate and a .151 well-hit average (down from .199 in 2013). Considering his injury history, I'd be tempted to think he's not 100 percent, and I'm not so quick to attempt to buy low on him considering I never expected he'd be a significant source of homers in the first place. That said, there's no reason he can't recapture some of his line-drive ability -- that fueling his batting average -- perhaps going .290-15 from today forward.
George Springer (C-): Where is the 40/40 -- OK, more realistically, 30/30 -- candidate everyone expected? Springer's big league career couldn't have gotten off to much worse a start: Since his major league debut April 16, he has the game's fifth-worst strikeout rate (33.8 percent) to go along with a bloated 55.8 percent ground ball rate; he typically had 28 and 38 percent rates in those categories in the minors. Springer's problems are simple: He's struggling against off-speed stuff -- 3-for-27, 12 K's -- and exhibiting no plate discipline when behind in the count (36.2 percent chase rate). He's a work in progress, and the risk is that the Houston Astros will tire of waiting for him and grant him additional seasoning in Triple-A. Still, they're one of the few teams with the luxury of being patient with him, and his power is immense, once he finally makes the needed adjustments. He's the classic "bold call" buy-low, and with many owners quickly losing patience, I'm taking the stance of "buy, buy, buy" if he's that cheap.
Danny Salazar (D+): Don't claim you weren't warned. For all his strikeout potential, Salazar was a pitcher sure to endure a season of conservative pitch/inning counts, and his all-over-the-map, start-by-start fastball velocities paint the picture of a blossoming star in the midst of his major league adjustment period. He's sure to dazzle at times this season, but without evidence of an imminent turnaround, he's a wiser buy-low at the point he begins to exhibit it; that could be July, September or even 2015.
Brandon Phillips (D): This isn't the first time we've seen signs of a Phillips decline. Last season, he exhibited statistical downturns in terms of performance against hard (93-plus mph) fastballs -- he had a .291 wOBA against them, down from .331 in 2012 -- and versus right-handers overall -- .297 wOBA, .326 in 2012 -- and then there was the threat of him being traded all winter, perhaps a hint that the Cincinnati Reds had performance concerns. This season he has heaped more onto the pile: His 20.2 percent K, 26.1 percent miss, 3.1 percent walk and 40.5 percent chase rates are all career worsts. Things should get better for Phillips -- if only because they can't get much worse -- but his reputation might inflate his asking price well beyond his true value.
Tristan H. Cockcroft examines slow-starting star players and their potential for regaining their draft-day value.