- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Let's face it: At this stage of the season, in a redraft league, you're either a contender ... or your team needs some serious help in order to rally.
The mathematical midpoint of the year came and went Sunday, so pace calculations are simple: Double the stats and there you go. (Though, technically speaking, we're 50.9 percent of the way through as of the start of Tuesday's play.) This also means that whatever your deficit today, you have roughly an equal amount of time to what has already passed in which to make up at least that number.
Think about what that means for a moment, because it could require you to make some brash, perhaps risky moves in order to make up ground.
That's where today's column comes in. Today, the focus is upon maximizing your gains and minimizing your risks going forward. We only want the players with a potentially massive bang for your trade buck, and we want to trade any player whose value could evaporate overnight. Ah, but is there a type of player who fits the qualifications?
Let's use 2013 data to illustrate these value extremes. The chart below compares players' auction-dollar earnings -- these using a $260 cap and our 10-team ESPN standard mixed league roster requirements -- from the mathematical first half (through June 30) to those from the second half (July 1 forward). On the left are the players who experienced the greatest increase in value, on the right those who lost the most:
The second-half gainers in value did so for a variety of different reasons: Young and Soriano benefited from trades; Young to a team that finally gave him the everyday at-bats necessary to steal 37 bases in 79 games, Soriano to a ballpark that boosted his power numbers. Werth, Price, Ramos and Reyes rebounded from first-half injuries to remain relatively healthy in the second half. Myers thrived in his first extended taste of the big leagues. Uehara and Farquhar, meanwhile, both benefited from being elevated to their teams' closer role.
And what explained the second-half decliners in value? Cabrera, Cruz and Braun all succumbed to PED suspensions that wiped out more than 60 percent of their remaining seasons. Gonzalez, Grilli, Wright and Revere each missed at least 26 team games while on the disabled list nursing injuries. Brown and Segura were hotshot prospects playing over their head in the first half who settled back to earth during the second half. McLouth, meanwhile, stopped hitting, but more important he stopped running: He swiped six bags in 74 games the final three months, after having stolen 24 in 72 games the first three months.
Toss these 20 examples into the proverbial blender and dumb luck appears to be a recurring theme. Injuries, trades and suspensions are notoriously difficult to predict, and role changes aren't always easy to forecast until several days in advance, at which point most people are already aware they're coming. This is why keeping daily tabs on the news is imperative for any fantasy owners.
But the left-hand group also shows that taking chances can inspire a fantasy rally: A $30-plus gain in value in a half-season's time can help push a team to a championship. And while those players are extremely difficult to predict, what that group also reveals is that anyone can be benefit from such good fortune, even the players who seemed utterly worthless in the first half, for one reason (injuries) or another (limited role).
That in mind, let's identify five players I see with excellent odds of such a leap in value from today forward, bearing in mind that this is just one man's opinion. Ask 100 different people to cobble such a list and you might get 100 different answers.
Jake McGee, RP, Tampa Bay Rays: From closer (June 15) to primary setup man (June 16 and 22) to closer (June 27-28) to primary setup man (June 30), that has been McGee's pattern since manager Joe Maddon declared a closer-by-committee, but the left-hander has been easily the team's most effective reliever this season and we're entitled to expect more. Thanks to continued progress of his two-seam fastball -- that inducing a good rate of grounders and giving him a strong coupling with his four-seamer -- McGee has extremely balanced lefty/righty splits; he looks a lot like Sean Doolittle, the Oakland Athletics' closer, except that unlike Doolittle, McGee generates more grounders (about 41 percent of the time to Doolittle's 33 or so). Maddon might be the type of manager who exploits matchups and he should; but that was also true about the Athletics and they eventually settled upon Doolittle. It's an effective "if you missed out on the get-Doolittle-before-he's-a-top-15-closer trade opportunity, make sure you capitalize on this next one" call.
Matt Adams, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals: He's a hitter who falls into that "he struggled with injuries in the first half, but he's talented enough to thrive in the second half" category, and his value might once again be in question now that top prospect Oscar Taveras is back in St. Louis to cast doubt upon Adams' rest-of-year role. Adams isn't the one who should regularly sit; Allen Craig (0.1) is the one with considerably lesser wins above replacement (2.1) and Adams has shown enough in terms of making adjustments this season to warrant high-upside -- think top-50 hitter -- valuation. He has batted .328/.339/.707 with six home runs in 16 games since returning from the disabled list but, more important, is 5-for-18 (.278 AVG) with two of the homers against lefties and has shaved his strikeout rate overall to just 17.7 percent during that span. It's a small sample, sure, but such hints are all you're entitled to ask when culling a list of big-payoff trade candidates.
Alex Cobb, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: Make whatever prediction you want about the Rays. They're destined for last place. They'll improve, but not enough to finish much higher than fourth in the division or within eight games of the lead. They'll rally more than any other team in baseball and emerge American League East champions. No, the final one is rarely a forecast anyone confidently boasts regarding a team in the Rays' position, but considering their parts and the divisional competition, is it really all that crazy? So, when I look at Cobb, I don't see a pitcher who "isn't going to win" going forward; I see a pitcher who could help lead his team's charge, and he's one who will come at markedly lesser cost than ace and teammate David Price. Cobb's changeup -- that's his money pitch -- hasn't shown any diminished effectiveness this season. However, the one thing that has been off for him since his May 22 return from the DL has been his fastball: Opponents have batted .385 with five of his six homers allowed against it, mostly because he's keeping it up in the zone too often. That's something he and the Rays can fix, and it's worth acquiring him before he does and rattles off the kind of second half like he had in 2013, when his ERA was 2.41.
Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles: There's no smarter time to acquire him than during his current, proverbial "timeout," as his five-game absence (four of which are remaining) might mask the fact that he has three homers in his past four games and .286/.318/.476 triple-slash numbers in his past 16 contests. Machado should never have been expected to thrive early this year, coming off major knee surgery. He was the kind of player who required substantial time to recapture his full strength and timing, and recently he appears to be doing so. And let's not forget: He was fantasy's No. 10 third baseman and No. 97 player overall in 2013, at the age of 20.
Mike Leake, SP, Cincinnati Reds: His is more of the "bolder of the bold" calls, because he's already 38th among starting pitchers on our Player Rater; this is more of a perceived versus actual reality call, as most don't think of Leake as a top-40 capable fantasy starter, but there's the chance that he has made the necessary adjustments to realize that potential going forward. Leake has 46 K's in 43 1/3 innings over his past seven starts, and during that span his fastball has averaged 91.4 mph, which compares favorably to his 89.3 mph career number. He has also gotten far better production from his cutter: Opponents have batted .198 against it and missed on 22 percent of their swings this season; they have batted .252 with a 17 percent miss rate against it in his career. Is this a clear skills bump for Leake? Maybe not, perhaps it's small-sample good fortune, but if you need to make some low-priced, potentially high-ceiling acquisitions, he's worth a look.
So why no appearance by personal favorite Homer Bailey, who is coming off his best outing of the season?
Simple: That outing, if not his current string of 5-for-8 in quality starts with a 3.38 ERA performance, probably raised his price tag a noticeable amount, and besides, it's not as though Bailey has positively ruined you if you've owned him. He's the No. 113 pitcher on our Player Rater, and ESPN standard leagues start 90 pitchers a day. This is a shoot-for-the-moon column in terms of trade targets, and while I strongly endorse a Bailey acquisition, leaping from the No. 113 pitcher to, say, 25th-30th isn't quite on the tiers of the players above. But I do think he might make that leap: Be aware that his second-half ERA in 2012-13 (3.13) was more than three-quarters of a run lower than his first-half ERA in those two seasons (3.96).
Cash in now
Sigh, with the good must come the bad. Let's get to the five players at greatest risk of plummeting in value these next three months. If you own them, you might want to cash them in as soon as possible:
Alfredo Simon, SP, Cincinnati Reds: He's enjoying an outstanding season, currently ranked 14th among starting pitchers on our Player Rater, his performance locking him into a rotation in which he was once the clear No. 6 option. Still, Simon has two factors working against his repeating -- or even performing within range of -- his strong first half: He's simply not a strikeout artist, his 4.27 FIP (fielding independent pitching) showing that his 2.81 ERA has considerable room to regress to the mean; and he'll be a workload worry once the season reaches its waning weeks. Patrick Corbin and Jeff Locke, to use 2013 examples, are apt comparisons, as the duo combined for 21 wins, a 2.30 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 42 starts through the end of July, only to slump to three wins, a 6.45 ERA and 1.69 WHIP in 20 starts from Aug. 1 forward. Both struggled to handle the chores of their first years as full-time, big league starters, and Simon faces a similar challenge: His annual innings totals as a professional, working forward from 2006, were 88 1/3, 119, 17 2/3, 6 1/3, 66 1/3, 133 2/3, 61 and 87 2/3. He has 102 2/3 innings thus far this season for a pace of 202 2/3, and while Simon might have some more to offer, he's among the pitchers most at risk of his value evaporating overnight.
Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado Rockies: There has perhaps been no player who produced more questions about his Player Rater-versus-my going-forward rankings split than Blackmon; for most of the season's first three months he was a top-10 player on the former and in no week was he ranked among my top 100 players on the latter. Despite some regression in recent weeks, Blackmon has been a handy fantasy option on the lower tiers, but with a full outfield in Colorado, he's in danger of slipping further in the coming weeks. Let's split his year-to-date statistics into two "halves" (pre-May 16, May 16 forward), and identify two key concerns:
Pre versus LHP: .308 AVG, .590 SLG, 2.4 K%, 10 Miss%
Post versus LHP: .255 AVG, .319 SLG, 10.4 K%, 17 Miss%
Pre on road: .265/.303/.398, 12.1 K%, .133 ISO
Post on road: .233/.269/.288, 16.7 K%, .055 ISO
The smart fantasy owner would've already recognized these developments and, in a shallow mixed league, begun mixing and matching him. But if the Rockies begin to recognize this and follow suit -- which might happen once Carlos Gonzalez returns -- Blackmon's value will evaporate. He has started five of the team's past seven games against a left-hander, but given that Corey Dickerson is no less productive a player against lefties, a compelling battle might be looming between the two.
Jered Weaver, SP, Los Angeles Angels: There's always a pitcher out there who defies his peripherals, and with Matt Cain's home run/fly ball percentage finally suffering regression the past year-plus, Weaver is the new "good luck king." Every underlying number seems to represent a future worry: Weaver's FIP is a career-high 4.16. His K-to-walk ratio is 2.61-1, his worst since 2007 and 43rd worst out of 94 ERA qualifiers. And his fly ball rate is 46.0 percent, second highest among said qualifiers. Somehow he continues to put forth stellar fantasy stats -- he's the No. 25 starter on our Player Rater -- but at any time pitchers like this can have their luck run out (again, see Cain). Shopping him means potentially selling a perceived second-tier fantasy starter with fourth-tier skills; that's smart in-season management.
Alcides Escobar, SS, Kansas City Royals: Trading base-stealing middle infielders isn't an easy thing to do in fantasy, but even if an Escobar deal forces you to seek steals elsewhere on a future date, it's one worth considering. He's simply not a complete hitter; he's a one-category performer (stolen bases) whose prospects in the category hinge upon his ability to get on base. He's not walking all that much more than in the past (4.8 percent rate, 4.4 percent career), his chase rate hasn't changed (35 percent, 34 percent career) and he's hitting fewer grounders than usual (44 percent, 50 percent career), which matters only in that he's speedy enough to leg out infield hits in support of a higher BABIP. Escobar also has experienced some painful half-seasons in the past; see his 2013 second half: .216/.233/.260 with 10 steals in 68 games.
Marcell Ozuna, OF, Miami Marlins: He has been an encouraging power source, but his underlying numbers are difficult to ignore. Ozuna has hit 10 of his 14 home runs at Marlins Park, a pitcher-friendly venue; he has a 25.6 home run/fly ball percentage there that ranks eighth among batting title-eligibles in home games. He also has whiffed in 27.9 percent of his trips to the plate, 14th most among qualifiers and another sign that his .328 BABIP is somewhat inflated; he had .308 and .301 BABIPs in Class A ball in 2011 and 2012. Ozuna might have a bright career ahead, but he has adjustments yet to make, especially against off-speed stuff, and there's a chance that he might endure some frustrating slumps in the coming weeks.
Though he's not among my five, primarily because I don't see his downside being as great as those in the preceding group, Justin Upton is a player who warrants shopping on the lesser scale. Oh, how I loathe putting a personal favorite in that class, but Upton's career progress (or lack thereof) cannot be glossed over.
Upton has some particularly troubling statistics: His 58 K's on pitches in the strike zone are second most in baseball behind only brother and teammate B.J. Upton (65). And only George Springer (34.5 percent), B.J. Upton (33.1), Mark Reynolds (30.4) and Chris Davis (28.3) have greater miss rates on swings against fastballs than his 28.3 percent. That's right, there are aspects of Justin Upton's game that place him in company with the game's whiff kings -- baseball's swing-and-miss rate against fastballs in the zone is a mere 13.0 percent -- and he was an extremely ordinary player the final four months of 2013; there's a chance the holes in his swing could be increasingly exploited going forward. Currently the No. 40 name on our Player Rater, Upton is bound to slip a few notches in my Wednesday going-forward rankings.
Tristan H. Cockcroft discusses which players are poised for big second halves and which players might be worth trading away now because they could disappoint soon.