Jon Garland came into 2005 as, arguably, the single most mediocre player in baseball from a fantasy perspective. He certainly wasn’t bad–there’s value in a starting pitcher who pitches 190 or more innings with a league-average ERA–but a look at Garland’s last three seasons showed a pitcher whose career had stalled:

Season  Innings K/9     BB/9    HR/9    OAVG    ERA
2002    192.2   5.23    3.88    1.07    .258    4.58
2003    191.2   5.07    3.47    1.31    .260    4.51
2004    217.0   4.69    3.15    1.41    .269    4.89

While a declining walk rate was nice, it was coming at the expense of a dangerously declining strikeout rate, and an ugly home run rate which could be only slightly blamed on his home park (Garland’s away HR/9 for those three years: 1.31, 1.14, 1.32). There was nothing in that profile to indicate a breakout was coming. In fantasy terms, he was a replacement-level pitcher at best.

Not surprisingly, when I picked him up in the RotoWire Staff Keeper League, it was as exactly that–a replacement-level pitcher. With holdover starters Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett and John Thomson being joined by Cliff Lee and a DL’ed Wade Miller through the auction, my rotation was stacked. Garland, acquired in the reserve draft, was purely insurance against a rash of injuries.

Fast forward to May 2005:

Season  Innings K/9     BB/9    HR/9    OAVG    ERA
2002    192.2   5.23    3.88    1.07    .258    4.58
2003    191.2   5.07    3.47    1.31    .260    4.51
2004    217.0   4.69    3.15    1.41    .269    4.89
2005    59.2    4.07    1.51    0.45    .220    2.41

Suddenly Garland, winner of his first eight starts, was a Cy Young contender. The K’s have continued to evaporate, but he’s cut his walk rate in half and his home run rate by nearly a third–and presented me with a dilemma. While my team has been consistently in the top four (out of 18) since the early days of the year, there was plenty of room for improvement. I was getting no production from my catchers, and with poor showings in both runs and stolen bases I could use a true leadoff hitter, a Juan Pierre-type guy. With such a pitching surplus, there were two ways I could try to fill those holes: trade one of my core starters and rely on Garland to take his place, or trade Garland.

Without really agonizing over the decision, I elected to try and move Garland. There were a few reasons for it: one, anyone interested in a Halladay (the other pitcher I thought about shopping, and in the final year of his contract) instead of a Garland was someone I was probably competing with for a spot on the podium, and someone I’d rather not help with a deal (I’m a big believer in not trying to fleece another owner in a trade. Your pool of potential trading partners is limited, and burning bridges in an ongoing league doesn’t further your self-interest.) Plus as a reserve draft pick Garland carries a $5 salary in this league as a keeper, with a contract that doesn’t even officially start until 2006–making him more attractive to an owner thinking about making this a rebuilding year (my preferred trading partner). More importantly though, I simply don’t trust Garland to keep it up. The vast improvement in his walk rate is great, but odds are his opponent’s batting average will creep back up as the season wears on, and given the homer-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular the improved HR rate also stands a good chance of being a small sample size fluke. More hits, probably including more home runs, combined with fewer strikeouts does not bode well for his final four months.

Which leaves the most important question unanswered: what’s the market value of an affordable, protectible pitcher who is almost certainly performing way above his head?

Apparently, not much.

A big part of the equation in getting a decent return on a “fluke” player (I suspect I would encounter the same problems if I tried to deal Brian Roberts) is how smart the rest of the owners in the league think they are. This being a RotoWire staff league, I wasn’t the only one expecting Garland’s bubble to burst. Everyone, it seemed, had his quick start pegged as a mirage. The market for his services was very soft–despite the fact that I’d left him on my bench for pretty much the entire season (I activated him for one start just before Miller came off the DL) no one had approached me about him. I got no “Hey, I see Garland’s just rotting away on your reserve list, what would you want for him?” emails. And the few people I’d approached about potential deals, even with Garland as part of a package, echoed my own lack of trust in his performance level.

Uncertainty is always a tough hurdle to overcome when making a deal. When owners make a fantasy trade, they want to pretend like they know what they’re getting. “Manny Ramirez is normally a .300/35/100 hitter, so if I pick him up now he’ll hit .325/25/70 for me the rest of the way.” With a player like Garland, though, there’s just no way of knowing what he’s going to do, making it impossible to get a fair return on a player with his numbers. If, let’s say, a $5 Brad Radke had gotten off to a similar start, the bidding war for him would have been insane. Heck, a $5 Joe Mays could have attracted more interest (Mays, after all, has done it once before). But Garland’s a mystery, and fantasy owners usually make lousy game show contestants–they’ll always take the cash in hand rather than what’s behind Door #2.

A few starts into the season I’d dangled Garland, then just a curiosity, for a catcher–Miguel Olivo. A bigger potential deal pushed that one to the back-burner though, and when it fell through Olivo’s struggles scared me off from pursuing it. That still seemed like the best avenue to pursue though–there didn’t seem to be any way I could get a Pierre, or Rafael Furcal, or even a Johnny Damon, without throwing in other players I didn’t want to lose. So when the owner of both Michael Barrett (protectible next year at $5) and Brian Schneider (in his final contract year) posted on the league message board that he was looking for pitching, it seemed like a good fit. I asked for one of his backstops in exchange for Garland; he offered Schneider, I countered with Barrett plus a few dollars in FAAB to sign a free agent replacement. Deal consummated.

On the surface it seems crazy, but I don’t think I could have done much better. The FAAB meant nothing to me–it’s a mixed AL/NL league, so there are rarely any free agents worth spending big on, aside from the occasional newly-minted closer. And if I’m right about Garland, the longer I waited to trade him the more likely it was he’d hit a rough patch, and confirm everyone’s low opinion of him. Plus, from my perspective I was adding a legitimate starting catcher to my roster for essentially nothing. Garland was a reserve draft pick, not part of my core roster. He was found money. Adding Barrett for a player I wasn’t even using, and had paid nothing for, was like discovering an extra $7 in my back pocket at the auction.

Of course, no sooner do I pull the trigger than I have a need for the insurance policy Garland was supposed to represent, as Thomson goes down for a couple of months with a finger injury. But as anyone who paid top dollar for him in a 1988 fantasy league can tell you, they don’t call it Murphy‘s Law for nothing.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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