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Grand Theft Roto: Finding the perfect time to trade

5/23/2008

At the risk of alienating all you hairy-chested, arc-welding macho types who populate the fantasphere (yes, a new phrase I'm coining), I'm going to make an analogy using the recent "American Idol" finale.

Career suicide? We'll find out.

All season long, rock-singing David Cook had been building momentum. If you were in a "Fantasy Idol" league, acquiring him would've gotten more and more expensive. But then, on Tuesday night, Simon Cowell and the studio audience seemed to crown Cook's competitor, the breathy, lip-balm-addicted youngster, David Archuleta, as the presumptive new American Idol.

Of course, 24 hours later, Mr. Cook was the David who had won by 12 million votes, but during that one-day gap, his "trade value" was probably as low as it had been in months.

So, too, is the case in fantasy baseball, where there is a perfect time to trade a player, and a perfect time to trade for another.

Casing the joint

The ideal time to sell any player is obviously at the point when his value is at its highest. But it's something you have to feel, or at least intuit, because by the time the numbers back up your hunch in a meaningful way, it's usually too late.

Sometimes it's obvious, like during Adam Dunn's recent homer streak. His string of five consecutive games with a homer screamed of a statistical correction. Now he's back on the expected track, looking like he'll deliver close to 40 homers with a very low average and a very high OBP. However, during the streak, there may have been some owners who sensed we were witnessing the new Adam Dunn, rather than a return to his old self.

Other times, the hints are more subtle, and maybe not even tied to that players' performance. We knew two weeks ago that Rafael Betancourt's struggles made him worth less than a top-tier closer. But as soon as Joe Borowski went on rehab assignment, Betancourt bottomed out. Conversely, when John Smoltz announced he was planning to come back from shoulder woes as a closer, Manny Acosta became hard to move. But then Smoltz had a setback, giving you another chance to get something for Acosta, who hasn't given up a run or blown a game in 10 days. Better hurry, though, because Smoltz appears close to being activated again.

Targeting players to trade for is just as time-sensitive. I spent much of this week planning my "Buy Ryan Howard now" paragraph, largely because he's actually been more productive this year than he was in 2007 at this point. Then he went and hit a pair of dingers on Wednesday night and another Thursday, and while I'd still buy him today, I know that the perfect time has already passed.

Like I said, it's hard to identify that sweet spot. It's a Zen thing. So I'm going to cross my legs into lotus position, burn some roto-incense and meditate on...

Three I'm stealing

Mike Cameron, Brewers: The man will never bat .300. In fact, asking for .275 is probably Santa Claus stuff too. But the possibility of him having one more 20-20 season in him is very real, especially now that he's in a park where his best swings aren't just long outs. Since coming off suspension, Cameron is getting consistent playing time and in the past week, his bat has really come around to the tune of a .308 batting average and a pair of dingers. Most encouraging is the fact that he attempted steals in back-to-back games on Tuesday and Wednesday. His overall batting average of .226 has him owned in only 20 percent of ESPN leagues. He should come cheap if he's on a roster in your league.

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners: If you asked John Q. Ichiro-owner whether the 21 steals he's gotten so far make up for Ichiro's batting average hovering 40 points below his career mark, the answers may vary. Here's the thing: I sense Ichiro has run more this year because his average has been down, so he is trying to make each trip on base count. It's not like it's a team-wide philosophy. The rest of the Mariners' active roster has attempted 24 steals all year while Ichiro has attempted 23. Now the hits are finally starting to come in bunches -- 10 knocks in his past six games -- and it's fair to expect no player to offer the combination of speed, average and runs you'll get from Ichiro going forward. Make the offer now, because when his average hits .300, he's untouchable.

A.J. Burnett, Blue Jays: When a starting pitcher turns things around, it's a little harder to see since ERA and WHIP are slow to change once a half-dozen starts have been banked, and wins never tell the true story. But when a guy starts getting swings-and-misses, that's a real good sign, and Burnett fits that profile. Burnett has struck out 36 batters in May after punching out only 19 a month ago, and in the process, he has cut his monthly ERA nearly in half from his 6.07 mark in April. Remember, Burnett was a monster in the second half of '07, but a hurt fingernail kept him from throwing his curve in March, so April was his hook's "spring training." Even with the whole Zen thing, my pulse is kinda racing thinking about getting him at a discount.

Three I'm dealing

Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals: Is it just me, or does it seem like just about every year, the Cardinals get a crazy power output from some outfielder in the space of a half-season. It was Reggie Sanders hitting 21 in less than 300 at-bats in 2005, Chris Duncan hitting 22 in 2006 and 21 in 2007 without ever topping 400 ABs, and now we have Ludwick's 12 homers in his first 131 at-bats. I understand he has hit at many as 29 homers in a minor league season, but the man is on pace to blast about 40 in the bigs. Really? There is very little he can do to raise his value, so even if he does jack, say, another 18 this season, now is the time to sell. Personally, I think we've seen half of his homers for the year.

Cristian Guzman, Nationals: It's been a rough year on shortstops, with a myriad of injuries. Torn quads, concussions and even back-to-back broken kneecaps in Cincy. As a result, there are owners out there who need a shortstop, and when they see Guzman's .307 batting average through Wednesday, plus four homers and three steals as "garnish" on his plate, they may be willing to place an order. The thing is, Guzman hasn't hit better than .275 in anything resembling a full season since 2001, when he was a 23-year-old speed demon for the Twins. He no longer runs enough to give you more than a smattering of steals and he never had any real power, so selling him on the heels of a four-game stretch in which he has raised his average 15 points makes sense.

Jon Lester, Red Sox: As a Boston fan and a guy who lost two of his in-laws to cancer a year ago, nothing made me happier than watching Lester's no-no on Monday. But as a fantasy analyst, I have to say sell because, truly, what could he possibly do to increase his value? Back-to-back no hitters? Strike out 15 next time? The kid threw 130 pitches and when he goes next time, I'd be shocked if they let him get out of the fifth inning. I'm also speculating that Bartolo Colon's strong start on Wednesday will allow the Sox front office to enact its "let's rest our young arms" program. When Clay Buchholz returns from his DL stint, I wouldn't be shocked if Lester comes down with a hangnail or a cold sore or something else to buy him two weeks off. Let me be clear: I have no source for this, just reading tea leaves.

Pulling the job

Thought I had a deal done this week when I offered up Billy Butler and Jose Lopez for Jason Giambi and the eternally injured Howie Kendrick in an AL league which uses OBP instead of batting average. My potential partner admitted he loved Butler and was "all done with Giambi."

And then he rejected the deal. I guess I should offer him players he doesn't like next time.

Until next week, don't just win your league. 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.