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Defining buy-low, sell-high candidates

5/5/2010

One man's trash isn't always another man's treasure, just as one man's treasure isn't always another man's trash.

That's the reality of the wild, wacky world of buy-low, sell-high trading, a market all too often misused and misinterpreted, even by experienced fantasy owners.

The "buy-low, sell-high" approach to trading is hardly a novel one; even if you've been playing the game only a year or two, you're probably familiar with it. To sum it up, just in case: Trade for the player whose fantasy value resides at the lowest end of the scale, while trading away the player whose value is at its peak.

But there's a critical mistake that the vast majority of fantasy owners make when attempting to employ the strategy, and it's a matter of perception: Perceived value is all that matters in this market. It's not year-to-date statistics, Player Rater standing, preseason average draft position, career achievements or what the player's hometown play-by-play announcer thinks of him that determines his value; if I don't agree with your assessment that Austin Jackson is a legitimate MVP candidate, then we're not getting the trade done.

I pick Jackson for an important reason, because it was a question in Monday's chat that prompted the discussion of sell-high candidates, and thus the idea for this column. As Tony from San Francisco astutely pointed out, if "everyone everywhere says sell high" on Jackson, is he really a sell-high candidate?

To provide the converse example, let's turn back the clock one year: On the morning of May 4, 2009, Mark Teixeira was batting .182 with three home runs and 10 RBIs, putting him on pace for 20 homers and 68 RBIs. Teixeira belted two homers that night, and from May 4 forward he was a .308 hitter with 36 homers and 112 RBIs, for a full-season pace of 42 homers and 131 RBIs. Of course, with his track record, the early offensive returns at new Yankee Stadium, the lineup surrounding him, the impending return of Alex Rodriguez to hit behind him and, perhaps most importantly, his top-25 preseason average draft position, Teixeira was surely a buy-low candidate on everyone's list. But was he one, really?

The answer to both questions is "yes" … but that's because the buy-low, sell-high market is not one colored simply black or white. We might have such tools as ADPs and the Player Rater, which evaluate players in those two, definitive colors, but one thing we do not have is an official "Market Value" page, labeling players with a specific, set price applied to all fantasy leagues. In fact, the closest things we've got are rankings, like the ones published in this space weekly.

The problem with rankings, however, is that they're colored in shades of gray. To illustrate, in this space each week I publish my personal rankings of the top 100 hitters in fantasy baseball. For comparison's sake, I could solicit every one of my readers' top 100 lists and my guess would be that every one would be unique, some delivered with the declaration that they're "certainly more correct" than mine. (If you don't believe that, read the Conversation posts, because there might be nothing better at inspiring a fantasy baseball debate than rankings.)

You'll see that this week, I've ranked Jason Heyward, the front-runner for National League Rookie of the Year honors, my No. 59 overall hitter. You might fancy him one of the 25 best, or you might think pitchers will begin to figure him out the proverbial second time around the league and value him closer to 100. I won't tell you any one of those three is the correct ranking; there's no such thing as an ironclad guarantee in this game. What I can tell you is that a substantial amount of research and projections go into my rankings, and I can only assume that if you differ in opinion, I respect it because you've done the same.

And, bingo, there's our basis for a buy-low/sell-high opportunity, because our perceptions of the player's value are different. We're in business.

It's for that reason straight buy-low/sell-high lists -- which you can find most anywhere on the Web -- are somewhat silly, being that you can't place a specific price tag on a player and assume it'll stick. That price will vary from league to league and person to person, and that the player was even termed a buy-low or sell-high candidate somewhere might diminish the chances of successful execution of the strategy; there is simply no one-size-fits-all.

That said, what we can do is ballpark a player's value, using such tools as ADP, Player Rater data and "Hit Parade" rankings and determine how likely and to what degree he is a buy-low/sell-high candidate. Then it's up to you to see whether your leaguemates' perceived value of the player presents your opportunity.

The numbers in parentheses represent the player's 2010 ADP, his 2010 Player Rater ranking (PR) and his 2009 Player Rater ranking (2009 PR). These numbers account for hitters only; a player ranked 100 isn't 100th-best overall, he's just the 100th-ranked hitter, so that we're following the same criteria used in the "Hit Parade" rankings.

Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees (ADP 25th, PR 1st, 2009 PR 26th): He's a "sell-high" candidate to many, simply based upon that No. 1 overall Player Rater ranking, but how many people believe Cano will finish there? If you can fetch first-round talent for him -- a Matt Kemp, Tim Lincecum or Hanley Ramirez -- by all means try, but that 2009 Player Rater number sure hints he's a bona fide lock for top-20 status. So does his average second-half stat line: .329-10-43, 40 runs.

Paul Konerko, 1B, Chicago White Sox (ADP 149th, PR 6th, 2009 PR 80th): Looking at his 2009 Player Rater and 2010 ADP numbers, it's clear Konerko is underrated, so he's not a clear "sell-high" because his ADP should have been halved. Point to his 77-homer pace as reason to spin him off, but as Matthew Berry and I discussed on Monday's podcast, if Konerko finishes with .280-35-110 numbers, that means 23 more homers, 86 more RBIs and a .275 batting average are still coming. Don't sell him unless you're fetching a top-75 hitter (or top-100 overall player).

Vernon Wells, OF, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP 113th, PR 5th, 2009 PR 104th): Opinions are bound to vary on Wells, as many of my readers feel he's grossly undervalued in my rankings, meaning he might be as prime a "sell-high" candidate as there is right now. At least, I'd be selling at these prices. Extract his season-opening series numbers at Rangers Ballpark, then project his numbers to a full season and he's a .298-27-81-7 player -- valuable, yes, but hardly to the level of the No. 5 hitter on the Player Rater. I still think he's ranked just right.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies (ADP 18th, PR 76th, 2009 PR 14th): No one's going to give him away, but if your aim in "buy-low" shopping is to hope your counterpart will sell at exact Player Rater prices, then you're guaranteed to fail as a trader. Besides, Tulowitzki is batting .301, which eases somewhat the sting for his owners. What you should do is feel out his owners, who might fear he's a bit of a Coors product (.893 career home OPS, .764 road) or that his 32/20 numbers of 2009 were a tad fluky. You could snag him at a few rounds' discount from his ADP, well worth the investment when you consider he has averaged .303-30-101-13 numbers per 162 games played after June 1 in his career.

Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers (ADP 177th, PR 16th, 2009 PR N/A): So let's get to Jackson, shall we? Surely you've heard all about his astronomical 29.8 percent strikeout rate, but at the same time he's also the game's leading hitter, at .377. However, much of the latter has been fueled by big league bests in both BABIP (.532) and line-drive rate (40.3 percent), both of those numbers completely unsustainable. Fantasy owners realize this, unfortunately, so Jackson is far from an obvious "sell-high" candidate, though he's indeed one to shop around, being that he's much more likely to bat .277 than .377 and is on pace for just six home runs and 31 stolen bases. A .277-6-56-31 player is effectively no better than what Nyjer Morgan was in 2009, and Morgan might make an excellent straight-up swap. Remember, effective "sell-high" maneuvering is not all about aiming sky high.

Brett Gardner, OF, New York Yankees (ADP 158th, PR 11th, 2009 PR 172nd): He wouldn't be a "sell-high" candidate at all if not for Curtis Granderson's injury, which provides Gardner's owners the argument that he's guaranteed every-day at-bats over the long haul to extend his currently lofty paces. (For the record, he deserved them anyway.) That might be enough to convince some that Gardner's 2010 might ultimately be better than the aforementioned Morgan's 2009 (No. 46 PR), in which case by all means sell. But that's probably Gardner's ceiling, his true value slightly beneath it.

Chone Figgins, 2B/3B, Seattle Mariners (ADP 51st, PR 124th, 2009 PR 20th): Given the chance, I'd trade Gardner straight up for Figgins in a heartbeat, though positional flexibility has a lot to do with it. Figgins' ADP and 2009 Player Rater splits demonstrate that he was a bit underappreciated in the preseason, and the truth is that while his strikeout rate is up and his batting average down, almost all of his other paces are right in line with his 2009. Few of his owners might believe he's still top-50 capable, but he absolutely is.

Chase Headley, 3B/OF, San Diego Padres (ADP 154th, PR 32nd, 2009 PR 156th): A Headley fan I am, but I'll let the statistics tell this story. Headley, currently 32nd among hitters on the Player Rater, drops to 88th if you extract his stolen-base earnings from the equation. Yes, he's capable of hitting close to his current .324 clip; yes, he's capable of more than his current paces of six homers and 50 RBIs. But wouldn't 25 steals -- or half his current pace -- be a lot more appropriate expectation for guy who isn't a traditional speed demon? Halve his steals earnings and he's the No. 60 hitter thus far, meaning that if you can get anyone ranked at least that high on this week's list, you should probably take it.

Jose Lopez, 2B/3B, Seattle Mariners (ADP 81st, PR 176th, 2009 PR 86th): If you know anything about Jose Lopez, you know that selecting him requires patience, and patience is not something that the majority of fantasy owners have. In each of the past two seasons he didn't hit his groove until June, but once he did, he was a clear-cut top-50 hitter. What that means is that anyone willing to sell him at beneath his ADP -- effectively Howard Kendrick dollars -- is doing you a favor, and you might even be able to wait a couple weeks and snag him slightly cheaper.

Colby Rasmus, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (ADP 153rd, PR 25th, 2009 PR 188th): Is he really a "sell-high" candidate? Rasmus is on pace for 39 home runs, 90 RBIs and 19 stolen bases, but with his talent and favorable spot typically hitting fifth in the order behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, Rasmus might very well approach or exceed those numbers. It's actually the .316 batting average that's less sustainable, partly because he's on pace to whiff more than 170 times, though the plate discipline is indeed improved in his sophomore campaign. Rasmus is the kind of player you could surely sell, but selling high might prove difficult, unless you can hook someone on the idea he's truly a .300-30 candidate with 20-steal ability.

TOP 100 HITTERS

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Four up

Andre Ethier, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: Not a lot has gone right for the Dodgers so far this season, but Ethier, not to mention fellow outfield-mate Matt Kemp, is one of the few things that has. Since missing two games with a sprained ankle the opening week of the season, Ethier has nine home runs and 25 RBIs to capture the National League lead in both categories. What's more, he's 10-for-25 (.400) with three walks versus left-handers, demonstrating marked improvement in one aspect of his game that was sorely lacking in 2009.

David Freese, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals: Though the Cardinals weren't willing to commit to him as their starting third baseman last season, it's clear they are now, especially having granted him starts in each of their past 13 games, all but one of those versus right-handed starters. He's handling both sides with the greatest of ease, including .317/.353/.540 (AVG/OBP/SLG) against righties, and while some of his numbers are obviously luck-induced, it's clear he's capable of holding down a regular job, as well as a permanent spot on most fantasy teams.

Alfonso Soriano, OF, Chicago Cubs: So much for Soriano being on the down slope of his career, as he's on pace for 40 homers and 113 RBIs, which would represent his second-best and best single-season totals, respectively, not to mention he's hitting a career-high .325. Hitter-friendly Wrigley Field has had a lot to do with that, as he's put up .405/.476/.865 numbers there so far, but what's wrong with exploiting those home games while examining road matchups with slight caution? Soriano is a sell-high, but considering most people are still attached to the preseason thought that "he's done," it's probably smarter to keep him and ride this out.

Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, New York Yankees: Gardner might be one Yankee who benefits from Curtis Granderson's placement on the DL, but Swisher is another, mainly because of the impact on his place in the batting order. The next-most-obvious option in the No. 2 hole on days Nick Johnson sits, Swisher also gets to slide up one spot in the lower half of the order on days Johnson plays, both of which at least provide a slight uptick in terms of run/RBI potential. Oh, it also helps that he's batting .396 in his past 12 games.

Four down

Alcides Escobar, SS, Milwaukee Brewers: Fantasy owners who nabbed Escobar late were hoping for one of two things: that he could repeat his .304 batting average of 2009, or more likely his .293 mark during his minor league career; or that he could steal 30 bases, as he traditionally did each year in the minors. Thus far he has failed in both endeavors, his zero steals most distressing but not entirely shocking considering his on-base percentage is just .282. The Brewers do have a capable, experienced backup in Craig Counsell, and at this rate, it might not be long before Counsell steals the starting job from Escobar.

Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Yankees: Look for more injury analysis from Stephania Bell regarding Granderson in the coming days, but early indications are not good; manager Joe Girardi told ESPNNewYork.com during the weekend that "it looks like a month" before the Yankees will get their star center fielder back. Granderson was already in a funk at the time he got hurt, batting .108 (4-for-37) with zero extra-base hits and 10 strikeouts in his past 12 games, and one can only wonder whether he might take time to adapt even after his healthy return. He might also be more cautious on the basepaths initially.

Hideki Matsui, OF, Los Angeles Angels: Matsui's fantasy owners might be pleased once he logs enough games in the outfield to qualify there, but will it matter if he's not performing at a level worthy of slotting into your active lineup? He's on pace for 24 home runs, 78 RBIs and 54 runs scored, and while those aren't awful numbers, they're a step down from his performance with the Yankees last year. Don't make the argument this is ballpark translation, either, because he hit 15 of his 28 homers and had an OPS 134 points higher on the road last year.

Cameron Maybin, OF, Florida Marlins: Perhaps the concussion that cost him a game a little over a week ago has thrown him off track, as he's just 4-for-25 (.160 AVG) with one double and eight strikeouts in six games since. Whatever the cause, Maybin seems to be slipping back into old habits, including a 33 percent strikeout rate that ranks seventh-highest among qualified hitters. He was touted as a potential 20/20 candidate coming off a strong finish to 2009 plus spring training, but Maybin is going to need to cut down on the whiffs to make good on that promise.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Rod Barajas, C, New York Mets. In no way is this an endorsement of Barajas' skills as a potentially elite catcher, being that he's now 34 years old, has never batted higher than .256 in a single season and sports a .238 career mark in the category. The power, however, is legit. Barajas already has six home runs on the young season, after 19 in 2009 and 81 the past six years combined, and he has done it despite calling a pitching-friendly venue his home, not to mention maintaining a respectable 13.0 home run/fly ball percentage. If you're hurting at catcher -- and chances are you might be, what with Joe Mauer, Kurt Suzuki and Miguel Montero all battling various bumps and bruises, plus Chris Iannetta back in the minors -- Barajas might not be a bad short-term fill-in until your usual stud returns.

AL-only: Wilson Ramos, C, Minnesota Twins. Speaking of fill-in catchers, we present Ramos, who on Sunday became the first Twins player since Kirby Puckett in 1984 to have four hits in his big league debut, then followed it up with three more hits on Monday. Batting average has always been Ramos' specialty; he had a .288 career minor league mark, but it's his .153 isolated power number during his career down there that hints at some pop. With Mauer potentially out "week to week," Ramos should get the bulk of the at-bats behind the plate in Minnesota, and it's nice to know that at the bare minimum, he shouldn't hurt your team batting average.

NL-only: Andy LaRoche, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates. Though LaRoche has done little during his young career to establish himself as anything resembling a trustworthy fantasy option, his returns the first month of this year at least hint at some NL-only promise. He followed up a strong final month of 2009 (.313/.359/.552) with respectable spring numbers (.260/.309/.440), and through 18 games of 2010 has .323/.397/.431 rates. Remember, LaRoche is still just 26 years old, so it shouldn't be shocking if he's only now figuring it out.

New position qualifiers

20 games: Gordon Beckham (2B), Blake DeWitt (2B), Chone Figgins (2B), Troy Glaus (1B), Jose Lopez (3B), Placido Polanco (3B), Adam Rosales (2B) and Miguel Tejada (3B).

10 games: Reid Brignac (2B), Alberto Gonzalez (3B), Andruw Jones (OF), Adam Kennedy (1B), Nick Punto (3B) and Ty Wigginton (2B).

Five games: Alexi Casilla (3B), Mark DeRosa (2B), Jake Fox (C) and Omar Infante (SS).

One game: Clint Barmes (SS), Francisco Cervelli (3B), Brendan Harris (1B), Eric Hinske (3B), Mike Lowell (1B), Yadier Molina (1B) and Chad Tracy (3B).

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.