Punting from in front


The wife and kids are away for two weeks, having left me in the strange, utterly unfamiliar position of being a pseudo-bachelor. Suddenly, all sorts of lifestyle options are open to me. I could hit the clubs every night, spend the days going skeet shooting and do all sorts of questionable activities that could set me on the path to a land-speed record for divorce once my better half returns to find our bank account empty and some incriminating lipstick marks.

I'll probably just stay up a little later, sleep in more often and play a bunch more golf. Maybe not a plan worthy of Hefner-hood, but it sounds pretty good to me. The key here is freedom, and in roto-style baseball, when you're leading a category, you truly have the freedom to do all sorts of things, including throw it all away.

Do you have what it takes to punt from in front? It rhymes, and it even makes sense.

Casing the joint

The term "punting" is frowned upon because in 4x4 and 5x5 leagues, giving up on any one category usually means a team will have to finish first or second in the rest of the categories to be a champion. It's true, if you're lacking in a category. But if you are way ahead in saves, steals, or even batting average, with only one other team within shouting distance, you may want to consider making trades to "punt" those categories in exchange for the categories where you have the most potential for improvement. Now I'm not just talking about "trading from strength." I mean being willing to empty the coffers. Let me explain.

In The S.T.E.A.L., I lead the league with 61 saves, mostly thanks to investing in Trevor Hoffman and Ryan Franklin at the draft. Mark "The Squeeze" Ling is second, 16 saves behind me, and then there are two other teams about 20 saves behind me. I could trade one of my four closers and still be guaranteed the top spot in saves. But since I need so many other things, I'm just as likely to trade two or three of my closers in the next few weeks. At worst, if all three of my closest pursuers catch me, I'll slip a few points. But if I can turn those three closers into a starting pitching upgrade and two big bats, I could fly up multiple points each in strikeouts, ERA, WHIP, wins, homers, runs and RBI. That's worth a lot more than possibly losing three points in saves.

Because steals and saves are both scarce, with only a small fraction of players offering those counting stats, it's very hard for more than one opposing team to truly "load up" unless they're willing to sell out elsewhere. However, in both categories, there's usually a fair amount of grouping in the middle -- The S.T.E.A.L. has six teams with between 28 and 33 saves and six teams with between 52 and 61 steals -- so if you deal your speedsters or closers to someone with no chance of catching you, you should still insulate yourself from a real fall.

With batting average, the story is a little different because it's not a counting stat, but punting from out front still works. First, it's a stat that is easy to isolate. There are plenty of guys who steal bags, hit homers and drive in runs with low averages. Second, your team probably averages around 325 at-bats per week, which means you've amassed nearly 4,000 at-bats so far this season. The difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter over the rest of the season is 15 hits. So basically, if you're leading your league with a .293 average, as Taylor Gould is in The S.T.E.A.L., you can expect to drop to .291 by trading away one strong average for a weak one. Considering the fact Taylor is 11 points ahead of his nearest pursuer in average, he could swap out three or four high averages and risk all of one point. Ummmm … is there a way to block Taylor from reading this?

Do the math, and make some offers, and you can be punting before NFL training camps open.

Three I'm stealing

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox: Some players fade slowly, while others watch their talent evaporate all at once. And then there is Konerko, who, for the second time in the past six years, has shown the ability to have an absolutely awful year and follow it up with a great season. It happened in 2003, when he batted .234 with 18 homers, only to bounce back with a .277 average and 41 dingers in 2004. After a deeply disappointing 2008, as he's on pace to match his career seasonal averages of 30 homers and 100 RBIs, yet there are 23 pure corner infielders who are owned in more leagues than Konerko. That's a buy sign.

B.J. Upton, OF, Rays: If you're a speed-starved team that can't afford to take on a one-dimensional player, Upton is your top target. After a dismal April and May that had him batting .204 with only two homers and nine RBIs, his stroke has returned in June -- .329 batting average and an OPS of .910 -- resulting in even more steal opportunities. Upton's batting average of .241 for the year makes him more obtainable than guys like Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury, but he's going to be worth as much as either of those guys going forward.

Joel Pineiro, SP, Cardinals: Owned in less than 10 percent of ESPN leagues, he's a pick up, not a trade target in most formats. But in NL-only leagues or deep mixed formats, I'm buying for three reasons. First, he's done this before. His numbers through 14 starts -- 3.40 ERA, 1.18 WHIP -- are in line with his seasons from 2002 and 2003. Secondly, he's only 30, an age when most pitchers are finally maturing. And finally, there's the Dave Duncan factor. First, the Cardinals' pitching coach unlocked the beast that is Chris Carpenter. In 2008, he did it for Kyle Lohse. Now, he's working his magic with Pineiro. The strikeouts aren't there, but the rest of the package is trade-worthy considering the low investment necessary.

Three I'm dealing

Wandy Rodriguez, SP, Astros: One of my boss' favorite players, "Way-Rod" appears to be breaking out, delivering a strong ERA of 3.18 through his first 15 starts, and elite strikeout numbers. But he was nearly unhittable in April, allowing 21 hits in 32 innings, which took the focus off his mediocre control. Then, in May, he walked only nine batters in six starts, so those 41 hits allowed in 35.2 innings didn't kill him. But in June, Rodriguez has allowed 35 baserunners in 23 innings, and that has included nine homers. His strikeout level suggests he won't totally crash, but I think now's the time to deal a fly-ball pitcher in Houston who is putting too many men on base.

Rick Porcello, SP, Tigers: The number of guys who are too young to drink, yet can come up and consistently dominate major league hitters is zero. I mean yeah, if you want to go back to Dwight Gooden, I suppose I can't argue. The point is, even the most talented rookie eventually gets lit up. Porcello is a budding ace, but the league is catching up to him, as evidenced by the .315 batting average against he has sported this month. Throw in the 11 walks and 12 strikeouts through his first five starts of June and you've got a guy whose ERA is poised to rise. Is he worth owning? Yes. But is he worth more for trading? Definitely.

Scott Rolen, 3B, Blue Jays: Among the most added players in ESPN.com leagues this past week, Rolen's got his batting average all the way up to .329 heading into the weekend. That's awesome. What's less awesome is his utter lack of pop, as Rolen is on pace to hit a grand total of 12 homers, with 67 runs batted in for the year, and that's assuming he stays healthy all year and plays 150 games … which he hasn't done since 2003. I can't help thinking that this is the time to shop a batting-average-driven third baseman who has a summer home on the DL-Riviera just waiting for him.

Pulling the job

Only one tiny deal in my AL-only keeper league, where I dealt fringe cheap players in Clete Thomas, George Kottaras and a very inexpensive Endy Chavez, whose season is over, to upgrade my second catcher spot with A.J. Pierzynski. The other guys had to activate minor league catcher Taylor Teagarden, so it was a case of my giving him next to nothing, which was better than nothing.

The column will take a hiatus for the Fourth of July, but I bet I'll have a big deal or two involving closers in two weeks.

Until then, don't just win your league. Steal it.