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With the second half underway and the major-league trade deadline just around the proverbial corner, this is a crucial time for fantasy owners, probably the most crucial since the draft or auction. Important questions must be answered: will this player rebound? Who should you approach about a trade, and what should you offer them? Where should your remaining FAAB dollars go?

No question is as important as the most basic one, though, and the one you may have taken for granted: how realistic are your chances of winning or even finishing in the money? Simply glancing at the standings and seeing that “hey! you’re in third place!” isn’t enough. The gap between third and first could be much wider than it appears, and the gap between third and seventh whisker-thin. Being able to objectively assess where you are, and how much more of the mountain you have to climb, can help you avoid making roster decisions that you’ll regret later.

As an example I’m going to use my own squad, The Evil Team, in my “home” 4×4 AL-only league. It isn’t an expert’s league, but it is highly competitive, and my current predicament could be instructive.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the standings looked like this:

Team                     Total Points
South Park SouthPaws       69.0
Isotopes                   67.5
Silver Tongue Solicitors   67.0
EVIL TEAM                  61.5
Phelps for Buhner          59.0
Lazy Pacers                53.0
Billy Ball Batsmen         52.0
Diamond Minds              50.0
More Cowbell               42.0
The Skram                  38.0
Throbbing Gristle          36.0
Adam & the Ants            29.0

On first glance, it looks like I’m in a decent spot. The top four finishers share in the prize pool, and I’m well within striking distance of first place.

Or am I? Let’s take a closer look.

In batting average, for instance, I’ve got nowhere to go but down. My team entered play on Thursday in first place in this category, riding along at a .2841 clip, with second place not terribly close at .2766. The chances of me slipping, though, are fairly remote. With the possible exceptions of Emil Brown (.283 in my lineup) and Jhonny Peralta (.297) I have no clear overachievers, while at least one of Manny Ramirez (.275) and Justin Morneau (.267) should improve on their first half BA. On top of that, I was able to pick up Ichiro Suzuki just as his average threatened to drop below .300–he’s hit .423 since I traded for him. My lead here is about as safe as it can be, short of me nabbing vintage versions of Ty Cobb, Rod Carew and Ted Williams off the waiver wire.

When you’re analyzing your place in the standings, however, how you’re doing is only half of the equation. You also need to look at where the competition is, and what their prospects are going forward. In this case, the rest of the category is a mess.

One of the teams I’m trying to catch, the Isotopes, is the team in second place. Though they’re not likely to catch me, they could fall further back. While hitters like Garret Anderson (.301) and Melvin Mora (.298) aren’t likely to fall off, and his only possible regression could come from young Grady Sizemore (.301 in his lineup), the ‘Topes also added Richie Sexson over the break. If Sexson follows up his .258 first half with more of the same, he could start dragging the Isotopes back to the pack.

And by pack, what I really mean is the Mongol hordes. Third place (the Lazy Pacers) were at .2727 Thursday morning; 10th place, the Silver Tongue Solicitors, stood about .005 back at .2675. Somewhere in the middle were the other team I was trying to catch (the SouthPaws) and the one trying to catch me (Phelps for Buhner). In fantasy terms, even at this point in the season .005 is basically two good weeks, so there are still seven standings points (and possibly eight if the Isotopes fall back) completely up for grabs. Looking over the rosters of the standings leaders, the Solicitors appear to be the biggest threat. Not only do they have the most potential gains, they added Gary Sheffield, and have a few players like Frank Thomas (.244) who could pick up the pace. The SouthPaws got where they are thanks primarily to Brian Roberts (.345) and Michael Young (.333), and should slide back as Roberts regresses to the mean; Phelps for Buhner, meanwhile, will need Johnny Damon to keep hitting .343, or at least keep getting surprising contributions from supporting players like Ben Molina (.311) and B.J. Surhoff (.299), to stay afloat.

In other words, while I’m set in the category, one of the teams I’m trying to catch should reasonably be expected to pick up a handful of points while I stand still. That’s not good.

When you sit down and assess your title chances, you need to break down every category in this manner. Where do you stand? Where does your competition stand? Is your/their current roster likely to improve that placing, or drag it down?

I’ve got a different set of problems in the home run category. My team sat in 7th place on Thursday, but like the Solicitors in BA I was near the bottom of a pack, with plenty of room for upward mobility. I had 103 jacks; third place, the Billy Ball Batsmen, had 114 (again, two good weeks ahead of me), while even the second place Solicitors weren’t unreachable at 123. The question, though, wasn’t whether I could make up that ground. The question was, how was I going to do it?

In leagues of this depth, I tend to build the hitting portion of my roster around a general “Stars and Scrubs” philosophy. Specifically, I try to line up six big bats that will either carry my team in the league’s categories, or give me a surplus I can later trade for what I’m missing. In this case, the six bats ended up being Ramirez, Morneau, Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Crosby and… well, I couldn’t land a sixth bat at auction, so I had been hoping some wild card or other (Tadahito Iguchi and Alexis Rios were my main hopes) would blossom. It didn’t happen. Iguchi, Rios and Peralta all proved to be solid complementary hitters, but nothing more. That led to me packaging Crosby and Rios for Ichiro and Jorge Posada. It was a good deal for me (Ichiro’s steals were my main concern), but it was relatively power-neutral.

Looking over the rosters of some of the teams I’m trying to catch (Sexson/David Ortiz/Eric Chavez, plus Mora and Anderson, for the Isotopes for instance) I don’t have a clear advantage. I can’t expect any more from my big three outfield bombers than I got in the first three months of the season. A big second half from Morneau would help immensely, of course, but at this point I don’t think that’s something I can count on. And in dealing Crosby and Rios I used up my best trade bait, short of dealing a young star (such as Morneau or Rich Harden) who’s already one of the core players of my roster.

I can expect to gain a few points as teams in the second division trade their expensive and soon-to-be free agent stars, but if I can’t catch and pass my competition it’s essentially meaningless, as they’ll be gaining most of those same points too.

The pattern repeats itself across the standings. I stand third in RBI, but could just as easily be first or fifth. I’m 10th in steals, the reason for the Ichiro trade as well as a much smaller deal to pick up (ugh) Alex Sanchez, but even if everything falls right the highest I can reasonably hope to climb is fifth. I’m tied for seventh in wins, but I have a LIMA (Low Inning Mound Aces) pitching staff anchored by Harden and Johan Santana, so any gains I make in wins will probably cost me in ERA and WHIP-and with more points to be gained there (sixth in ERA, but first is just about attainable; fifth in WHIP, with second the best realistic outcome) I can’t afford to start loading up on mediocrities with rotation spots. The only relatively stable pitching category is saves, with either a second or third place finish waiting ahead of me.

My competitors have equally erratic prospects. The Solicitors, though–again–have the best potential gains in wins, where they’re 12th and just picked up Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina to add to the likes of the surging Dan Haren. Halladay’s injury grants the teams above the Solicitors a reprieve, but not a long one.

The fact that one team has the best two pockets of points to gain, and has already made deals to cash them in, has me worried to death. I already feel like I’m fighting for second place; I could run 1000 simulations using the current rosters, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Solicitors took home the title in 800 of them.

Which leaves me with a dilemma. Do I gut the future of my team (this is a keeper league, after all) by trading players like Morneau in a desperate bid to keep pace? Do I hope a sweetheart deal for my decent spare parts (Brown, Melky Cabrera, Brandon League etc.) falls into my lap, and not too late to make a difference? Or do I just sit tight, and let the chips fall where they may-in which case, trading Crosby and Rios might have been just about the worst thing I could have done?

I do have a fourth option, actually. There are usually opportunities in any league, not just to help yourself, but to hurt your direct competition by making deals with the teams they are fighting it out with in specific categories. Fantasy leagues, remember, are zero-sum systems. If somebody gains a point, somebody else had to lose one.

The Solicitors, for instance, are clinging to first place in saves. I could possibly swap a cheap potential keeper closer (Scot Shields probably fits the bill best) to the Skram, the team just behind the Solicitors, in exchange for a decent power bat like Rafael Palmeiro if the Skram’s owner is willing. Ideally such a deal will not only secure a point or two for me, it’ll cost the Solicitors a point he might end up needing.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox. He can be reached here.

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