Cockcroft: Top-10 buy-low candidates
I'm a die-hard Mac enthusiast.
Seriously, I might as well be attached to my Apple laptop, considering how often I use it. I've been using Macs for longer than I can remember, easily for as long as I've played fantasy baseball (though not as long as I've been writing about it). This was once a laughing matter to my family and friends, at least until around the turn of the century.
Right around that time, around the time of that "Y2K" scare, I decided to put a stop to the snickering. I was going to put my money where my mouth was, and buy some stock in the company with a piece of fruit for a logo. Sure sounded crazy at the time.
It was so crazy, in fact, a good friend of mine strongly advised against such a brash, foolhardy investment. What's worse: I listened to him.
I think we all know how that turned out. That Apple stock did rise -- something about inventing an i-something-or-other -- but hey, such is life in the stock market. It's all risky business, buy in at the low points, sell off at the high, and not every decision you make will work out perfectly. You know: win some, lose some, but make sure you come out on the winning side of the ledger more often than the losing side.
Sure sounds familiar, doesn't it? Like, perhaps, our grand game of fantasy baseball? Jumping in at the low points and cashing in at the high ones -- that's the very definition of mastery of our trade market, and you can be sure, if you win most of your trades, you're more than likely going to win your league.
I'm not necessarily a man of regret. OK, I've got some regret about my aforementioned tale, but I'm not about to make the same mistake twice. I can see those buy-in points -- nay, I can smell 'em -- so I say to you, get cracking, because the following 10 players represent some of the best buy-low prospects I see out there right now. Don't let these opportunities slip away:
Adrian Beltre: This one might be as simple as the statement, "Things can't possibly get any worse for the Mariners, can they?" Seriously, they're on pace for an MLB-worst 56-106 record and rank dead last in the American League in runs per game (3.87), so it's not like they can drop in the rankings. Besides, a lot of people saw real talent on this roster -- myself included -- and certainly no one saw worst-team-in-baseball talent. But when a team falls into this much of a funk, in fantasy, you won't find many people putting much stock into a single one of their players.
That's where Beltre's astonishing second-half track record comes in. For his career he has hit 35 points higher in batting average, 96 in OPS, after the All-Star break than before it, and from 2005-07 he ranks 12th in baseball in RBIs (153) and 23rd in home runs (41) that were accrued after the break. What's more, with the team now turning its focus to 2009 and beginning a bit of a housecleaning, one has to believe veteran players like Beltre might at least want to pick up their play, even if it's only as a face-saving measure. He'll come cheap, yet I bet he's top-10 third baseman worthy from today forward.
Check the stats: From 2005-07, Burnett is 21-14 with a 3.53 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 8.11 K/9 in 40 starts that came after the All-Star break, and he did it despite pitching for teams that boasted underwhelming offenses. The ratios show he's capable of performing better even if he sticks in Toronto -- which he claims he's OK with -- but his ceiling, especially in the win column, might be higher if he's dealt to a team stronger on offense. Either way, Burnett is probably pitching for a new deal in the winter, so you can count on him improving that 4.90 ERA and 1.51 WHIP to boost his price tag.
Robinson Cano: Could it be that he misses former coach Don Mattingly, who once hailed him as a future batting champion? Possibly, though hardly likely. Though, it warrants mention as one of the few changes to Cano's surroundings since last season.
OK, so maybe Cano is the poster boy for "underachieving player," and perhaps that makes him a layup amongst buy-low considerations. I do see plenty of people talking him up as such due to his overwhelmingly strong second-half career numbers, which I, like the masses, will now quote: .334 batting average, .906 OPS. They're hard to ignore, but I'll toss in another tasty tidbit that most don't as to why Cano's sluggish start doesn't totally trouble me: His plate discipline has not really regressed, so it's not like he's getting into habits he won't be able to fix. For comparison's sake:
2006: 8.93 AB/K, 28.22 PA/BB, .359 BABIP
2007: 7.26 AB/K, 17.15 PA/BB, .329 BABIP
2008: 10.75 AB/K, 19.64 PA/BB, .234 BABIP
It's that low balls-in-play average that has me curious, as it indicates some serious bad luck, particularly for a guy with a career .320 mark in the category. Maybe this is a confidence issue, but as they say, one or two cheap base hits can often spur a hitting streak. Such has been the case with Cano in seasons past, so even if you're not dying to buy in on a guy so underwhelming thus far, my advice would be to put his owner's phone number on your speed dial right now, and prepare your dialing finger for the very instant that first "lucky-dunk" of a base hit comes, because it will come. And once it does, he's going to provide you top-10 second baseman numbers through season's end.
Fausto Carmona: First of all, I almost never do this, that is, consider trading for a player currently on the DL, especially a pitcher. For one thing, their owners sometimes won't decrease their trade price tags as a result of their DL status, and for another, you can't buy in on a player at a riskier point on his value curve than when he's currently rehabilitating an injury. In Carmona's case, though, remember that his injury wasn't at all arm related; it was a left hip strain, and one that hasn't posed any problems for him recently as he nears a late-June return. In the best-case scenario, he's back and fine in two weeks.
Here's your hope at a cheap buy-in, though: With almost a month gone by since we last saw Carmona on the mound, it's possible his owners will look at his 1.59 WHIP and think him a tad overrated. And if you remember back to my piece about injured pitchers' road to recovery -- yup, I was dead wrong on John Lackey, but the points are still valuable in the overall scope -- any sort of sluggish performance in Carmona's first start or two back might lead to a panic move.
Well, I wouldn't panic. Again, this wasn't an arm injury, and in Carmona's case, that he generates so many ground balls makes him less prone to blow-up outings than your typical pitcher. With some luck, he'll be a consistent starter, a solid ERA/WHIP source, but by then you'll have already pried him away from his impatient owner for a song.
Alex Gordon: At some point he's going to turn himself into a very good -- OK, let's not mince words here, extremely good -- all-around baseball player, and there might not be any better time for that to happen than in his age-25, third-year-in-MLB season in 2009. But if we're to begin touting Gordon as one of next year's greatest breakout candidates, well, the seeds will need to be planted the second half of this season. What I see are his subtle improvements in at-bats per strikeout (3.96 last year, 4.19 this), plate appearances per walk (14.63 to 10.93) and fly-ball rate (43.6 percent to 46.3). Those are all signs that he's trending upwards, so I'd buy in now while I can.
Aaron Harang: If I were ranking my "buy-low" bets, Harang would be A-number-1, no doubt about it. Two things have presented problems for Harang to date; bad luck and a disastrous three-start stretch from May 29 through June 8. And, addressing the latter, I might attribute some of that to bad luck, too. During that rocky stretch, he pitched 15 1/3 innings, allowed 30 hits and 17 runs (16 earned), yet he walked but one batter and whiffed 10, that walk/K ratio curiously in line with your typical ol' Harang. His balls-in-play average, meanwhile, was an astonishingly high .441, especially for a guy whose career number in the category is .309. That reeks of bad luck.
But even if you're of the camp that likes to say, "Hey, even the bad starts count," the complete Harang package hasn't been bad. Compare his 2008 numbers in the key peripheral categories to either his standout 2006 or 2007 and he's not far off, and if you remove the three stinkers, well, Harang has at least matched those past years.
2006: 8.30 K/9, 2.15 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9, 48.6 QS%, .269 BAA, .748 OPSA
2007: 8.47 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, 1.09 HR/9, 58.8 QS%, .242 BAA, .690 OPSA
2008 total: 7.93 K/9, 1.78 BB/9, 1.25 HR/9, 66.7 QS%, .276 BAA, .777 OPSA
2008 (minus the 3): 8.30 K/9, 2.00 BB/9, 1.05 HR/9, 75.0 QS%, .245 BAA, .718 OPSA
Harang's real problem lies all in the win category, and we all know how much of a crapshoot that one can be. The Reds have averaged exactly three runs per in Harang's 15 starts to date, and he's ranked third worst in run support (2.85) among qualified starters. That's odd, because the Reds aren't that bad an offense and both Edinson Volquez (5.83) and Bronson Arroyo (5.42) are getting double the support, so I see no way Harang's wins don't pick up. And if they do, he'll go right back to being a close-to-top-10 starter.
Good news: You probably won't have to pay close to that price to get him!
Jeff Kent: Sure, he's 40 years old, but hasn't he done enough the past four years to stop people from calling him "done"? I admit that point isn't too far off, but he's a smart guy, one who probably knows when it's time to end it on his own terms, not fall apart statistically on the field. Besides, Kent has started other years similarly slowly, yet came on like gangbusters right around now to finish with a respectable final line:
2006, through June 15: 49 G, .268 AVG, .825 OPS
June 16, 2006 forward: 66 G, .310 AVG, .887 OPS
2007, through June 15: 63 G, .259 AVG, .794 OPS
June 16, 2007 forward: 73 G, .337 AVG, .944 OPS
As a Kent owner in a couple of leagues, I can attest to how little respect the guy gets on the trade market. Heck, he's available in nearly a quarter of standard ESPN leagues, which speaks volumes. Not that I'll call Kent an easy top-10 second baseman from today forward, but is there anything wrong with being No. 10? I'd call that a fair estimation, yet you might pay No. 25 second baseman value for him. For example: Given the choice between Kent and Dustin Pedroia (No. 11 among second basemen on the Player Rater) -- in redraft leagues, mind you -- I'd take Kent every time.
Dustin McGowan: Surely you can see my respect for the Blue Jays' rotation; it's stocked with talent, and underrated talent at that. In McGowan's case, I see his ceiling as even higher than Burnett's, yet he might not cost you much more in trade. He's one of the most effective pitchers in baseball at suppressing damaging extra-base hits, comparable to noted ground-ballers like Brandon Webb, Chien-Ming Wang and Fausto Carmona, or ace-caliber arms like Erik Bedard or John Lackey. Seriously, that's it as 2007-08 statistical comparables go, and it's a good, select bunch.
Plus, and again I'm picking and choosing starts, but if you remove McGowan's May 10 disaster in Cleveland, he has a 3.38 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 14 turns. In the past year-plus, he has turned into the "new Ervin Santana," describing a home ace who struggles on the road, but as Santana himself has shown, such trends tend to even themselves out. I'd call McGowan more unlucky than untalented on the road, so now's prime time to buy in, because there's legitimate top-25 starter potential in him looking forward.
Mark Teixeira: I know, I know, he's a name you know, and he hardly fits the description of "cheap" on the trade market. Still, if you consider that "Big Teix's" full-year paces are currently a .271 batting average, .801 OPS, 23 homers and 114 RBIs, he's underperforming comparative to his usual standards. No surprise here; Teixeira is a noted second-half player, and there might not be a season's second half where his circumstances are more fantasy-friendly than this one. He's in his walk year, playing for a new contract, hits between the incredible Chipper Jones and the formidable Brian McCann, and is on a team with serious playoff aspirations. But I'm a man driven by numbers, so I'll toss the facts your way, too, to indicate he has top-10-overall potential from today forward:
• After the All-Star break from 2005-07, Teixeira has hit 60 home runs, fourth in baseball. Ryan Howard, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez are the only players with more.
• Same time frame, Teixeira has 196 RBIs, second only to Howard's 199.
• Again, same span, Teixeira is one of only six players to have at least a .300 batting average, 50 home runs and 150 RBIs; besides Howard, Ortiz and A-Rod, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have done it. Pretty exclusive -- and elite -- company, don't you think?
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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