April 26, 2007
April is a time when we preach patience to fantasy players: "It's a marathon, not a sprint." And generally speaking, it's good advice. More often than not, three weeks' worth of games isn't even close to being enough to make a worthwhile decision about a player for the rest of the season, or even about the upcoming week. That's especially true in April, where the weather can wreak havoc with normal results. Extreme patience is required when talking about established stars. Consider a pair of Yankees, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. In 2004, Jeter got off to a 17-for-112 (.152) start, one season after a separated shoulder knocked him out for nearly the first two months of the season. He ended the year batting .292 with 23 homers, his second-highest career total. Rivera blew his first two save opportunities in 2005 against the Red Sox, after also blowing the save in Game Four of the ALCS against them the previous season. Nevertheless, at the end of the year he had 43 saves and a 1.38 ERA. These are just two of many examples of why it pays to stay patient when your star slumps early, and why you should be targeting nervous owners of Rivera, Manny Ramirez and others right now.
However, stepping down from that elite class of players, there are times when that patience can be deadly. Take Jose Lima-please. After winning 21 games and posting a 3.58 ERA with a 187:44 K:BB ratio in 1999, he seemed a solid second-tier starting pitcher in most drafts the following season. He started off his 2000 campaign promisingly enough, with a win over the Pirates. He then lost his next 13 decisions, lighting up scoreboards with a 7.52 ERA along the way. He showed brief glimpses of competence over the second half, but by then the damage was long-done, ending with a 7-16 record and a 6.65 ERA. Somehow, the Astros saw fit to let Lima start 33 games and pitch 196.1 innings; both the Astros and any fantasy owners that kept him active were repeatedly punished for their patience. One analog from the hitting side is Mike Lowell's mysterious 2005 collapse with the Marlins. He hit just .236 and dropped to just eight homers after hitting 27 the previous season. He didn't suffer a major injury that year, and ended up with 500 at-bats in 150 games. Those left waiting for him to turn it around waited all year, with no satisfactory answer to why he'd slumped over an entire season.
In both cases, there were few warning signs that this was coming or that it was anything more than just a long slump. There was no obvious injury to either player--in fact, both continued to get their share of regular playing time for most of the season, compounding the problem. Lowell has since bounced back to have a productive 2006 season, while Lima took longer to recover, but he did in fact recover to be useful again, if only moderately so, and briefly.
So how do we decide whether or not to cut bait and let the player go? The first criterion is your league's individual structure. I cut my roto teeth on deeper AL- and NL-only leagues, and those are still my favorite types of leagues to play in. The free agent pool in these leagues is always dangerously thin, and now more so than ever on the offensive side of the ledger, given the pitching-heavy construction of most major league rosters these days. In the LABR expert leagues, the rule has always been that you can't reserve a slumping player that you bought in the auction--you're either stuck with him or have to cut him, unless he goes on the DL or is sent to the minors. I was the lucky lottery winner of Lima in that 2000 season, and I held onto him well into the summer, much to my chagrin.
In the 10- or 12-team mixed leagues that are the predominant type being played now, it's a lot easier to get rid of a slumping player. In fact, doing so is almost imperative--the available talent pool on the waiver wire is so much better. Early in the season, you'll often see good teams turn over the bottom quarter of their roster in these formats, especially if there's no transaction costs involved. Other major factors include the player's health track record, his job security with his major league team (especially relevant with closers), and his previous statistical record. The more productive and the longer a player has been productive over his career, the more willing I am to wait on him.
Who are some players that we should cut bait on right now? I polled the other RotoWire baseball writers to get an idea of who they're cutting bait on in their leagues, or seeing others do so where it made sense, in addition to what I'm doing and what I've seen in my many leagues. Notice below that many of the names here are pitchers--it's important to have a quicker trigger finger with pitchers because of the long-term damage each successive poor outing can bring. A hitter can only induce the absence of production, with an empty 0-for-4 night after night; it takes a long string of those nights to destroy your team. A pitcher, especially a starting pitcher, can do a lot more damage in one outing. Going back to our Jose Lima example, on his fifth and sixth starts of the season, he gave up a combined 21 earned runs on 26 hits over 9.2 innings--it's that sort of stretch that's worth two points in ERA and WHIP in the standings for the year.
So, with the relative perils in mind, here are a few names that we came up with:
Zach Duke: If Duke hadn't overachieved in a 14-game sample in his 2005 rookie campaign, chances are that the Pirates might have considered a demotion by now. Duke doesn't dominate hitters to begin with, so he's already working with less of a margin for error. When he doesn't have pinpoint command, he's going to get hit, as he has so far this season. He'll improve, but there's a good chance that he ends up with an ERA higher than the 4.47 he posted last year, assuming he finishes the year in the rotation at all.