Potential sell-high candidates

Which notable players should be dealt after hot starts?

Updated: May 20, 2014, 3:59 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

If you know me, you know my affinity for garage sales.

But this summer, instead of my usual garage sale plundering quests, I'm reversing the trend. Over the years I've collected too much junk -- kids certainly help in that endeavor -- and it's time to pare the piles.

Francisco Rodriguez #57 of the Milwaukee Brewers
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesFrancisco Rodriguez currently leads all closers on the Player Rater, but is being used at an unsustainable pace.

So, my plea is simple: Please take my unwanted stuff. Welcome it into your home. Enjoy it as though it's actually worth something.

After all, isn't that what the garage sale process is about? The old, "one man's trash is another man's treasure," except, to be brutally honest, 90 percent of what's found in garage sales these days is just plain junk. You're effectively peddling your unwanted items in the hopes someone else will be fooled into believing it's valuable.

It's the same thing in fantasy baseball, except we call it the "sell-high" strategy. These days, fantasy owners have a mistaken perception of the sell-high concept; they think that every player performing significantly above his preseason projection fits the description. At its basest, it could be a journeyman backup infielder who rides a first-week-of-April hot spell to the top of the April 10 Player Rater. Yes, this is how the "Bona fide or Bonifacio" drop, on the Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast, was born: It was in tribute to Emilio Bonifacio's 2009 campaign, when he established fantasy relevance with a 16-for-33, 11-run, 4-steal output in his first seven games ... then promptly batted .234/.289/.280 with 17 steals the rest of the year.

Folks, Emilio Bonifacio was not a natural sell-high candidate in the second week of that April, not in the majority of fantasy leagues, that is.

Emilio Bonifacio was a middling prospect -- who had been traded twice in the previous nine months -- who had speed-demon minor league numbers, yet a .289 career-to-date batting average in the minors, and just .240 in 60 games in the majors, and projected "cheap speed" in NL-only and deep mixed leagues as the team's utilityman. And everybody knew this at the time.

Ah, see, that is the key to this sell-high process: Measuring the player's perceived value comparative to that of his actual appeal. This is a difficult thing to do, as discussed two weeks ago on the buy-low side. The ability to do so is critical to your trading success, at least if you use that route to acquire discounted value rather than to specifically address needs. Remember: Some seemingly obvious sell-high candidates might not be at all; they might be players who have made a key skills improvement and are likely to maintain their new performance level.

Just as I did two weeks ago with buy-low candidates, I'm here to help. Today, let's examine some of the hottest-starting players, breaking down both their trade appeal as well as how -- and if -- they fit into the sell-high category. Each gets a grade; the higher the grade, the wiser it is to shop them immediately.

Bailey

Dee Gordon (A): He's an "A," about as obvious a sell-high candidate as they come, and it's not because I believe Gordon will be without value the remainder of the year. It's that the perception -- hearing the cries from many fantasy owners who feel I've undervalued him going forward -- of his value exceeds my expectations from this point on. Now, to be clear up front: You might be unable to peddle Gordon, being that he's a 25-steal contributor to date (seasonal pace of 90) and might be the linchpin to your stolen-base strategy in a Rotisserie league. I'm merely mentioning the name because he'd bring a hefty haul -- I'd argue you'd have no problem netting either a top-100 overall, or perhaps even a top-50 hitter or top-25 starting pitcher -- and if you're in position to cash in this chip, you should.

Simply put, Gordon is not as good a hitter as his batting average shows (.304, but fueled by a .354 BABIP) and he's not as much of a walker as you might think (5.5 percent rate, 141st out of 175 batting title-eligible players), meaning he's at risk of a significant decline in fantasy production in batting average, runs scored and stolen bases. Keep in mind that Gordon has attempted a steal 44 percent of the time he has had an opportunity (those judged by Baseball-Reference.com), second only to Billy Hamilton (61 percent, those ranks counting only players with at least 20 opportunities), so any decline in terms of on-base frequency is going to adversely impact his total. To be clear, I think Gordon is a natural .260/.310 (AVG/OBP) hitter, and that's enough to keep him in the Los Angeles Dodgers' starting lineup all year -- that's the big change to his 2014 going-forward prospects -- but I'm not sure it'll result in much more than another 30-35 steals. That's a borderline top-100 overall player in my book, especially accounting such a free-swinging player's potential volatility, and it makes for quite a trade chip.

Hosmer

Michael Brantley (A-): Most of his 2014 explosion comes down to his home runs -- nine of 'em -- except that those are fueled by an unrealistically high 19.6 home run/fly ball percentage. Yes, Progressive Field plays well for power to right field -- Brantley has hit six homers there, all of them to right or right-center -- but this is a ground ball oriented lefty with a past history of struggles against same-siders. Talk up his .277 BABIP ("He's not getting lucky!") and his reduced strikeout rate (8.8 percent, a career low, yet not all that far out of range with his 2012 or 2013). He's a useful player, but not a budding superstar.

Johnson

Francisco Rodriguez (B+): As with Gordon, this is less about skepticism about K-Rod's future than it is cashing in a chip at a high perceived value level. Rodriguez currently leads all closers on our Player Rater, doing so on the strength of 61-save, 101-K, 1.57-ERA seasonal paces. The problem, however, is that he's also on pace for 83 appearances and 83 innings pitched, the former a career-high pace and the latter representing his most in 10 years. He's also doing it despite less overpowering stuff -- velocity especially -- than he had back then. K-Rod probably cost you a mere waiver/free-agent pickup, and he has justified a ranking just outside the "Elite Four" among closers (Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Greg Holland and Kenley Jansen) at the minimum, meaning that's probably his trade value. Frankly, I'd trade any closer if I liked the offer, and I'd especially trade one I see working a bit less often in the season's final three-quarters who has already turned me this tidy a profit.

Santana

Wily Peralta (B): I'm as much of a Wily Peralta fan as anyone, but I'm also tasked with placing a price tag on every player. (By the way, handy garage-sale tip: Price everything. Nothing is more annoying than forcing customers to ask, since they're not going to wait through a line of people asking, "How much is this?") Still, much of the foundation of my pro-Peralta stance this preseason was the hope he would develop a new pitch to use against left-handers; to date, he hasn't shown me that one significant pitch advancement, at least not against that side. Lefties aren't slugging at a high rate against him, but they're batting 54 points higher against him than righties, and I'll point out that he has had a somewhat fortuitous schedule: After the opener at Boston, he drew the Cardinals (at a time they were slumping badly), the Padres, the Cubs, the Reds (in Cincy, but missing Billy Hamilton, Brandon Phillips and Devin Mesoraco), the Diamondbacks, the Pirates and the Braves (in Atlanta). This isn't my hopping off the Peralta bandwagon; it's a suggestion to shop him around to see how much you might net in exchange for the chip.

Prado

Mark Buehrle (B-): It's about time his ESPN ownership percentage hit triple-digits, considering our Cy Young Predictor currently has him fifth in terms of year-to-date performance. Buehrle has been outstanding, so much, for so long now, that he might actually have convinced an unsuspecting fantasy owner (or three) to pay more than a few pennies for his services in trade. The fact remains, however, that all of Buehrle's peripherals are right in line with his career norms. Take a look:

K%: 14.3, career number 13.8 percent
BB%: 7.4, career 5.5
xFIP: 4.17, career 4.22
GB%: 44.6, career 45.5 (courtesy of FanGraphs)

This is no knock on Buehrle's real-game usefulness. He's one of the most durable, dependable pitchers in the game. Still, he's not a strikeout pitcher, he pitches in the competitive-top-to-bottom American League East (and in a hitting-friendly venue at that), and he has a 3.81 career ERA and 1.28 WHIP. There's simply no way I can justify ever leaving Buehrle in my active lineup without sniffing every matchup.

Fielder

Charlie Blackmon (C): He's a perplexing case, because Blackmon showed a propensity for walks and decent contact rates in the minors, but with the Colorado Rockies last season he was as free a swinger as they come (he whiffed seven times as often as he walked, and that was in 258 plate appearances). This season, he has nearly doubled his walk rate -- granted, to a modest 5.0 percent -- while cutting his strikeout rate by more than half. In the history of baseball, only 13 players have ever managed, in consecutive seasons of at least 250 PAs, to cut their strikeout rates in half or more while boosting their walk rates by at least two percent; Felix Fermin (1994) was the most recent player to do it. Here's the best part, which explains many of Blackmon's skills gains: Last season, he struck out 23 times against left-handed pitchers (resulting in a 31.1 percent rate). This season, he has but one whiff against a lefty (2.0 percent rate). Couple that with a vast improvement on plate coverage low in the zone, and there is clearly something here from the skills-boost angle. It's why Blackmon grades so poorly on the sell-high scale; he's on the list because his bloated current Player Rater ranking (No. 2 overall on the season) might have some interested fantasy owners giddy to trade for him, but I'm not so sure you should be selling at beneath third-outfielder-on-your-roster value (and that's a 10-team mixed measure).

Sandoval

Melky Cabrera (D): He's one of the more polarizing figures in fantasy baseball, in that he's loved by some and not remotely trusted by others, perhaps a product of his inconsistent year-over-year career stat lines, perhaps concerns about his past PED suspensions. Whatever the cause, Cabrera is a "test-the-waters" player if you plan to shop him. He's not, after all, exactly a 20-homer player and he's not exactly a 20-steal player, though I do see him being a handy, sneaky contributor in all five Rotisserie departments. Frankly, I think he's spot-on to the player he was in 2011, and his was the 23rd-best 2011 season in fantasy per our Player Rater. Do I think he'll finish that high in 2014? Well, no, because he has some durability questions, but if you can cash in at that level -- or even a mere top-50 or top-75 player -- it's worth doing.

Cabrera

Rick Porcello (F): We'll close with this one, an A-number-one example of mistaken interpretation of sell-high strategy. Simply put, Porcello is one of the few members of the top 50 on our Player Rater to date who isn't owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues; only Dallas Keuchel, Jose Fernandez (out for the season, so it's understandable) and Rajai Davis have lower percentages. Keuchel and Davis are two I'd also lump into this class, but Porcello stands out because he's a more familiar name, and one that fantasy owners might instantly assume will regress in coming weeks. Here's why he's not a player to sell, and rather one to perhaps buy: His K-to-walk ratio has improved in every one of his big league seasons, to the point that he's flashing a career-best 4.71 ratio thus far in 2014, not to mention he currently sports personal bests in terms of well-hit average allowed (.154) and swing-and-miss rate (21 percent), the latter critical in illustrating that he's still missing bats despite a declining K rate. Just 25 years old, Porcello still has top-40 starter potential, so I wouldn't sell at all.

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