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July 4, 2008

Fantasy Focus

Taking Stock at the Halfway Point

by Chris Liss

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It's the midpoint of the season, and you now have some idea of where the team you drafted this year stands. I say "some," because things will most surely change in unpredictable ways over the next three months, and with 50 percent of the stats already logged into your permanent record, it's time to take a step back and evaluate your options.

Be Realistic, But Not Too Realistic

If no one on your team has stolen more than 12 bases, you'll probably need to either make a deal, or write that category off. David Wright is not going to steal another 34 bases this year, and Chris Young may be lucky to swipe 10. It's important to be realistic, and to devote your resources accordingly. Barring a trade for an elite stolen-base option, if you can move Julio Lugo for a middle infielder that hits for average or power, you need to do it. There's no extra punishment to bear for the margin of defeat in a category-if you trail the 11th place team in steals by 1 or 100, it makes absolutely no difference.

On the other hand, you don't want to be too realistic. If, after your AL-only draft, you came away with only Milton Bradley, Carlos Quentin, and Jason Giambi as power sources, you may have felt that home runs and RBI were going to be a problem. Likewise, there will be players who will surprise by breaking out or bouncing back in the second half. Maybe Travis Buck hits 10 homers after a late July call-up, and Jason Kubel hits 18 more, but if you're a few homers behind the pack and don't see where the extra lift will come from, that doesn't mean that you should punt the power stat.

For the owners of fantasy teams, one of the lures of sites like Baseball Prospectus and RotoWire is that their forecasts are often so accurate that it's easy to treat their projections as facts. The problem is, they're not facts, and no system will ever be able to predict with anything approaching certainty what three or four individual players on your team might do in a 300 at-bat sample. The player, of course, needs to have the underlying skills-Willy Taveras is not going to be your surprise source of power even if they allow him to mainline HGH and use an aluminum bat. But whether a player's second half rises into the 99th percentile of what he's capable of or falls into the 25th is impossible to say in advance. A few decent power sources climbing into the 80-plus range can make all the difference.

Assess the Competitiveness of Your League

If your 12-team league typically has a half-dozen quitters every year-people who stop setting their lineups and FAAB-ing or waiver-wiring to replace injured players-then chances are that the top teams are going to be strong across the board. It will be increasingly difficult to beat them while carrying a "1" in steals or saves, and almost impossible to tank in two categories (like HR and RBI) and still hope to sniff one of the top three slots.

On the other hand, if everyone in the league fights tooth and nail to the bitter end no matter where they are in the standings, then you should expect the points to be much more evenly distributed throughout the league. In this case, every team is likely to have weaknesses, and perhaps you can abandon a category or two and still contend for the pennant.

Assess Your Need for Volatility

If you're in eighth place, 28 points off the pace, and trailing substantially in several categories, you'll need to target volatile players-ones with high ceilings and low floors. It's time to move reliable players like Derek Jeter for risky ones like Rickie Weeks. Deal Raul Ibanez for Gary Sheffield, Derek Lowe for Rich Harden. Sure, these players could be awful or end up hurt, but you've got nothing to lose if that happens, and everything to gain if they pan out. Their 80-plus percentile lines are far better than those of the players you're sending away. If two or three of them take off, you've suddenly salvaged your season.

On the flip side, if you're one of the top teams and still very much in contention, you want to do the exact opposite. You've gotten great mileage out of Harden already, so cash him in for Lowe. Sheffield shows signs of life? Maybe you can get Ibanez for him. You don't need a miracle to win the league-you just need to avoid disaster and find a little luck down the stretch. In this case you want to minimize volatility.

Again, you don't want to fool yourself by imagining that you're sure of how things will turn out. If you're in sixth place and a few dozen points out, take a look at how far back you are in the raw categories. If your deficit is more cosmetic than real-in the overall standings but not in the actual category totals-you might want to hold off on making any drastic moves.

Beware the Averaging Categories

Let's face it, although we may wish that all of our leagues were competitive from top to bottom, many of them aren't. There are plenty of deadbeat owners who allow their teams to languish once they're convinced that all hope of winning is lost. That might not seem to be of concern to your first-place squad, but upon further inspection, real danger lurks. Although you may be six points ahead of your archrival in the standings, you notice that he's got a 12 in batting average, while you have a merely adequate '5'. That's okay in July, because he's got a 4 in home runs and a 6 in RBI, while you top the charts with 12s in both.

But consider what's going to happen as the season goes on. Your rival will be making trades and FAAB acquisitions and optimally setting his lineup each week, while the deadbeats will allow injured players and part-timers to man their teams' active roster. Eventually, your rival will gain on the deadbeats in HR and RBI, essentially netting himself free points. Meanwhile, that "5" that you're carrying in average isn't going anywhere. The deadbeats' partial lineups aren't hurting their averages one bit. You're stuck, and your rival is not. This can happen in all three averaging categories (Avg, ERA, WHIP), and therefore in most leagues they are slightly more important than the counting stats. (In an ideal league where every owner did his utmost for the entire season, this wouldn't be the case).

If you hadn't given that enough consideration at the draft table, what can you do about it now? You could put a premium on acquiring players like Ichiro (the most reliable source of average in the game) or Joe Mauer (who brings you a tremendous advantage in batting average over the alternatives at his position). You can also practice some addition by subtraction, dealing Mike Cameron, Jack Cust, Adam Dunn, or Ryan Howard at a slight discount, knowing what awaits you down the stretch. Categories like ERA and WHIP are also major concerns, so consider moving high-risk starters like Ryan Dempster for a second-tier closer or lower-risk starter on a bad team-say Zach Greinke.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

Let's say you're in a tight race at the top of the standings, and that you're particularly strong in the power categories, while the other team's strength is pitching. That other team is in the middle of a tight pack in power, and his position in the standings fluctuates every week. You have surplus power to trade for pitching, and you've got two offers on the table. One is ever-so-slightly better than the other, but the slightly less appealing offer is from a team that's in the tight HR and RBI pack with your rival. In this case, it might be worth taking the lesser offer, since it's likely to cost your rival a point or two in HR and RBI. That's like gaining extra points for yourself, all things being equal.

Splitting the Windfall

Finally, here's a bit of general trading advice. When two teams decide to make a deal, it's actually a kind of legal collusion against the rest of the league. By making the trade, there is presumably a collective windfall to be divided up. If you're 30 steals ahead of the next team in the standings, then trading Willy Taveras isn't going to cost you any points, but it could sure help your trading partner. The other team stands to gain five points in the very tight steals standings, and he offers you a modest upgrade in power for Taveras, a deal that may only net you one or two points.

In other words, if you do the deal, you gain one or two points, and if you stand pat, you gain zero points. Should you make that deal? I'd argue no.

Whether or not you should make a deal isn't solely about whether or not you'll be better off having done it. Every time you make a legal trade-one that benefits both parties-there's a collective windfall that accrues, and while it's not always possible to split this windfall evenly, you should avoid trades that split it 80/20 against you, and the Taveras trade potentially has this kind of unfair split.

In that case, one might argue that you should hold off because you may be able to get more for Taveras from someone else, though there are some owners who will never make a trade no matter what. So shouldn't you just take the one- or two-point bump? I'd still argue against it. You should counteroffer with a deal that shifts the lion's share of the value to you, with the eventual aim that negotiations will split the benefits more evenly.

The bottom line is that you might not end up making a deal at all, but the principle of insisting on fair value for your players is more important than any slight bump in the standings. The only exception to this would be if it's in late-August/September, and that one- or two-point bump is the difference-maker between finishing in or out of the money, or between winning or losing a title. In that case, one or two points is a significant chunk of the windfall. There's just no way you can know that at the halfway point.

--

Chris Liss is the managing editor of RotoWire.com, and the host of the "RotoWire Fantasy Sports Hour" on XM Sports Nation, XM 144 from 2-3:00 p.m. ET weekdays. BP's Will Carroll, Joe Sheehan and Jay Jaffe are frequently found among his guests.

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Premium Article Transaction Analysis: ... (07/03)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Closer ... (07/11)
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