Melky, Sanchez trade places
Is Royals-Giants trade a pure example of buy-low/sell-high?
Experienced fantasy baseball owners can tell you all about a most popular trade phenomenon: The "buy-low, sell-high" deal.
They happen in the real game, too, and on the surface, at least, the Kansas City Royals' trade of Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for Jonathan Sanchez and Double-A left-hander Ryan Verdugo appears to be just that.
Cabrera, after all, was largely an undrafted player in ESPN standard leagues entering 2011. He'd enjoy a career year, batting .305, 25 points higher than in any single prior year (.280 in 2006); and his 18 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 155 games were more than he had in 301 games combined from 2009 to 2010 (17, 17).
Sanchez, conversely, was a 13th-round pick in ESPN standard leagues on average, 123rd overall in terms of ADP (127.4 average draft position) and 31st among starting pitchers. But his ERA rose by more than a run, going from a career-best 3.03 in 2010 to 4.26; his WHIP increased from 1.23 to 1.44; and he made just 19 starts and pitched 101⅓ innings, both of those his fewest since 2007, due in part to biceps tendinitis that cost him nearly six weeks midseason and a sprained left ankle that prematurely ended his season in mid-August.
The problem, however, is that such outlier seasons aren't always a sign that regression to the mean is inevitable. In some cases, the player might have improved his skills to the point that his performance was a stronger indication of his future.
Take Cabrera, for example. One of the reasons fantasy owners as a whole were so down on him entering 2011 was his brutal one-year stint with the Atlanta Braves, a season during which he was criticized for his weight and conditioning. Thanks to a rigorous offseason conditioning program, he entered spring training in 2011 having lost 17 pounds, describing himself "healthier than I've ever been," per the Royals' website in mid-February.
Cabrera's numbers supported his rejuvenation, as his .211 well-hit average trumped either of the numbers he posted in 2009 or 2010, as did his line-drive rate (19.1 percent), and his isolated power (.164) represented a career best. Perhaps most importantly, he sustained the performance for an entire six months, stronger supporting evidence, as he managed .322/.349/.489 triple-slash rates, a .250 well-hit average, 20.9 percent line-drive rate and .167 isolated power. Only his 8-for-16 performance attempting steals was a bothersome second-half trend.
Cabrera should help fill a starting outfield spot for the Giants, who have Carlos Beltran, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross up for free agency, but most importantly, he'll slot in as either the team's leadoff or No. 2 hitter, lineup spots from which the team received .248/.300/.355 rates combined in 2011. Cabrera's career rates are .275/.331/.398, meaning that even if he does regress to past-years' levels, he'd still represent a substantial improvement for the Giants.
Consider Cabrera a .290-hitting, 15-15 player with 100-run potential at the minimum, something akin to what Andres Torres was for the Giants during their championship season. Cabrera's batting-average potential is higher, however, while his stolen-base potential is somewhat less. Torres was a top-100 player in 2010; though I ranked Cabrera 166th, he has an outside shot at top-100 status.
As for Sanchez, smooth recovery from his injuries in the spring is the issue, but assuming full health, he's a useful pickup for the pitching-starved Royals. Even in an injury-plagued season, he managed more strikeouts than innings pitched for the third straight year, and in the past three seasons combined he has been as effective in road games (3.73 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) as home (3.78 and 1.29), easing somewhat the sting of his departing spacious AT&T Field.
Sanchez, however, has two problems that suppress his bounce-back potential: One is that he has struggled against American League competition the past three seasons, posting a combined 5.17 ERA and 1.64 WHIP in nine interleague starts (albeit a small sample size); the other is his walk rate, which soared to a career-worst 5.86 per nine innings this past season. Couple that with a drop in his fastball velocity -- from 90.5 mph on average in 2010 to 89.7 in 2011 -- and Sanchez has a significant downside as an AL pitcher.
Fortunately, the AL Central is the division a pitcher would want to transition into, with three of the Royals' four division rivals ranking among the bottom half in the majors in runs scored, so Sanchez will certainly warrant AL-only and mixed-league matchups appeal. But he'd need a glowing spring to be a significant comeback candidate.
One interesting side effect of the Cabrera-Sanchez deal: Cabrera's departure opens up an everyday outfield spot in Kansas City, one that might go to prospect Lorenzo Cain, acquired a winter ago in the Zack Greinke trade. Cain, incidentally, batted .312/.380/.497 with 16 home runs, 81 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in 128 games for Triple-A Omaha in 2011, numbers not far off Cabrera's production.
Of course, one cannot assume those numbers -- having been accrued in the hitting-rich Pacific Coast League -- instantly translate to major league success, but if Cain managed a .260 batting average, double-digit homers and 15 steals, would anyone be surprised? Keep his name tucked away in AL-only formats.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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