Grand Theft Roto: Living on reputation
When I heard that Elizabeth Berkley was hosting a new reality TV show on Bravo, I thought two things.
The first was, "Wow, the girl who went from being cute on 'Saved by the Bell' to being all sorts of naughty in 'Showgirls' is back!"
The second was, "Why am I watching Bravo when I get paid by ESPN?"
And then I saw the show and realized Ms. Berkley no longer had the youthful exuberance she showed at Bayside High, nor did she have the raw heat from when she was grinding her way to the top in Sin City. She's now more the hottest mom in the PTA. You know, the one that might have had some work done, according to the other moms. But she was able to parlay her past into a gig hosting a primetime show. In short, she was living on her reputation, and there are players doing the same in the majors.
Whenever a player's perceived skills differ from what they're producing, you have an opportunity to make a deal that benefits you by playing up the perception while getting value.
For example, Casey Kotchman's owner likes him, I'm sure. What's not to like about a .333 average with six dingers in his first 120 at-bats? However, since Kotchman never hit more than 17 homers in a season in the minors, there's a perception that he's a Mark Grace-type. But he has hit 17 taters in his past 563 major league at-bats and he's only getting better. In the AL, there are only two first-basemen -- Justin Morneau and the newly minted Miguel Cabrera -- I'd rather have than Kotchman going forward.
Then there are guys whose very names suggest excellence, even though the stats don't back it up. Greg Maddux and "low WHIP" go together like peanuts and Cracker Jack in baseball circles, thanks to Maddux's career mark of 1.14. But since the end of 2006, Maddux's WHIP quietly climbed to 1.24 in 2007, and 1.25 this year (through Thursday). Still good, but there are currently 37 full-time starting pitchers sporting a lower WHIP than Maddux, including such luminaries as Dana Eveland, Tim Redding and Aaron Cook. Of course, some of those names will watch their WHIPs bloat like my belly after a trip to the Chinese buffet, but in my ESPN public roto leagues, a 1.25 team WHIP only earns five or six points. In short, he's now "average" in terms of WHIP except in deeper leagues, but still has the reputation of being elite. Find an owner who believes the rep more than the stats.
So with that kind of disparity between perception and reality in mind, here are
Chien-Ming Wang, P, Yankees: In fantasy leagues where strikeouts count, Wang has been considered a second-class starter despite posting back-to-back 19-win seasons in 2006 and 2007. That's what happens when your career high for strikeouts in a major league season sounds like an FM radio station. "It's the Wacky Wang show on W.H.I.F. 104 & the Whiff!" But this year, Wang is using his slider when he gets ahead, and bats are missing it. He'll still sling that sinker when he needs a ground ball, but he's on pace for 160 strikeouts and that makes him a true fantasy ace. Pay accordingly.
Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks: Before this year, Lyon had been given two chances to close games. With the Red Sox in 2003, he was shaky, and with the Diamondbacks in 2005, he was dominant until he got hurt in May, and when he returned, he was awful. Now, after two years of regaining form and paying dues he thought he'd already paid, Lyon is back in that closer's role. Plenty of people grew squeamish when he blew two of his first three save opportunities, but since then, he has been perfect -- zero earned runs and seven hits in 12 innings -- resulting in nine saves. Still, he's got that reputation as being a "shaky" closer. Other than Mariano Rivera, who isn't "shaky"? I'd deal Billy Wagner for Lyon and an upgrade elsewhere without blinking.
Bengie Molina, C, Giants: It's easy to look at Molina's current line of a .295 batting average and four homers and think that he's due for a regression. The first half of his career earned him a reputation as a catcher with mediocre batting and slugging skills. However, if you look at the three-year averages of full-time catchers, and put together a list of guys who batted better than .280 and provided 15 homers a year, the list includes only Victor Martinez, Jorge Posada, Kenji Johjima, Brian McCann and Molina. Posada's hurt, V-Mart hasn't hit a homer yet, and Johjima isn't batting his weight. In short, Molina is the guy offering top-tier numbers without the name or the rep.
Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: The Yankees' captain has always hit for average, but he became a fantasy icon when he added speed and then power to his game, the combination peaking in 2004, when he hit 23 bombs and stole 23 bases. His homer totals have dropped each year since, and though the speed hung on longer, a year ago Jeter managed only 15 steals in 23 attempts. Worse, this year, through 122 at-bats, Jeter has no homers, no steals, and only one stolen base attempt. Maybe his early season leg injury is still plaguing him, but all I know is there are nine other shortstops who are batting .290 or better and contributing in either the speed or power categories. Derek Jeter is still a big name. It's time to find out how big by dangling it to your league-mates.
Jeremy Bonderman, P, Tigers: Hey, it's my first double-back of the year! Seven weeks ago, I was buying Bonderman because I thought he was ready to bounce back and felt he was undervalued. But much of that had to do with a robust 7.5 strikeouts-per-nine-innings in his career. After all, he was only two seasons removed from striking out 202 batters with only 64 walks. But this year, even though Bonderman's ERA is 4.17 through Thursday's games, he has struck out a mere 22 batters in 41 innings, while issuing 26 free passes. Bonderman is owned in just less than half of ESPN public leagues. Make sure he's on none of yours by touting his whiff history and get back whatever you can.
Carlos Beltran, OF, Mets: When a player wins the rookie of the year with a .307 average, 26 homers and 41 steals, he will forever be remembered as a triple threat. But Beltran hasn't topped .280 since, and he has averaged a shade under 20 steals a year since 2005. His power is still real, and he's still a name, but when I see him batting .218 through Wednesday, I'm not expecting a 70-point bounce-back. Forty points might be asking too much. He has also stolen one base since April 20, and that was his only attempt. If you can get top dollar for a guy whose workbench is missing a few of the five tools he used to have, you do it.
Popular opinion says that in multi-player deals, whoever gets the best player wins. I don't always agree, especially if you can score the next two or three top talents in the transaction. So in one of my ESPN mixed leagues, when another owner came calling for Albert Pujols, seeing that my starting shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki, was on the shelf, I followed my own advice from a week ago and I started countering.
After a handful of e-mails, we settled on a deal where I sent Pujols, John Maine and Aaron Rowand in exchange for Carlos Guillen, Adam Wainwright and Carlos Quentin. Frankly, I know I gave up the top dog, but Guillen is going to qualify at three positions soon (that will be key when Tulo returns), Wainwright has been one of the top 10 starters in baseball this year, and I think Quentin might match Pujols' homer total in 2008 if teams keep pitching to him. While I like both Maine and Rowand, I don't think either could be top 10 at their positions in any category.
Fair deal? Grand Theft Roto? I really won't know for a few months. But if all three of the guys I grabbed keep it up, I won't just win that league. I'll steal it.
Shawn Peters is a fantasy baseball, football and golf analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him your own grand theft rotos by clicking here.
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