The way you win at this game, very often, is by being ahead of the curve.
Here we are on the morning of June 15, with 28 days -- exactly four weeks -- until the All-Star Game. To you, that might seem like plenty of time to prepare for the season's second half, right? The very thought of discussing second-half studs and duds might seem way too premature, doesn't it?
If you've been playing fantasy baseball for any length of time, surely you're familiar with the phrase "second-half player." Lists are readily available of players who historically improve or worsen after the All-Star break, and with each passing day as we head toward the Midsummer Classic, you'll read more and more suggestions to "trade for this player, he's a historic second-half stud."
With each day and each column published, your chances of successful execution of such a strategy diminish, often exponentially. These days, there's so much information out there that if you wait until the All-Star break, the traditional "midpoint" of the baseball season, to make your trades for these second-half studs, you'll be too late. Your counterpart might already be on to your thinking and prepared to shoo you away, assuming you're out to swindle him/her.
In other words, these days you need to be ahead of the curve. On everything, and that includes tinkering with your roster for the season's second half.
Sure, if you're taking a sell-high angle, you might be giving up on that extra month's production from your hot-starting hitter. Or if you're targeting a slow-starting slugger, such an acquisition might require patience through what might be another three or four weeks of lackluster statistics (the first name on today's list, I'm looking directly at you). But if the result of such a deal means three weeks of so-so numbers in exchange for 2½ months of great stats, isn't it worth making that deal today, while you might still have the chance to make it?
This goes double for those of you who play in that rare league with split seasons. I've got one such league; it's a local AL-only league in which I've been so ravaged by injuries, 10 players currently reside on my disabled list. It might be easy, therefore, for me to say "Tinker today," since I'm already looking ahead to the second half in that particular league. However, with the possible exception of a top contender who needs the parts in question just to win in the first half, I'd advise looking ahead to the second half for anyone in such a format.
So with four weeks to go before the break, it's time to get started attempting swaps based upon second-half trends. One that you might be surprised I'd make: I'd absolutely deal the first name on the "Players you should sell" list for the first one on the "Players you should buy" side, particularly because the one who tops the former has struggled so much, you might even get a juicy throw-in included.
Let's get started
Players you should buy
Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees: There's always a poster boy for first- and second-half players, and Teixeira currently holds that honor among second-half hitters. Sure, eight hitters had a greater OPS differential after the All-Star break than before it for the past five seasons combined (among those with 1,500-plus plate appearances from 2005-09), including teammate Robinson Cano, but Teixeira is the one everyone seems to gravitate to. Why shouldn't they? He averaged .317-19-61 numbers in 71 games per year after the break during that span, and his fantasy value today might possibly be at a near-all-time low.
Teixeira's sluggish start is disconcerting, but considering that he has never struggled so deep into the season as he has in this one. Look at his numbers from June 15 forward in each of the past five years, and the approximate time he began performing at his traditional top-25 levels:
2009: 97 G, .297/.381/.532 AVG/OBP/SLG, 19 HRs, 68 RBIs, "Heat-up" time: First week of May
2008: 90 G, .334/.442/.634, 23 HRs, 73 RBIs, "Heat-up": Around Memorial Day
2007: 71 G, .309/.396/.570, 18 HRs, 64 RBIs, "Heat-up": Final week of April
2006: 96 G, .280/.370/.569, 27 HRs, 76 RBIs, "Heat-up": Around Memorial Day
2005: 99 G, .310/.400/.588, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, "Heat-up": Third week of April
Maybe Teixeira's struggles indicate he's not quite going to return to his .300-hitting, 25-homer, 75-RBI ways from this date forward, but if he's only a .290 hitter with only 15- to 20-homer power, can we really complain? As the No. 3 hitter in the offense in which he resides, he'll still be a top-25 hitter at the minimum performing at those levels. If you can acquire him cheaper, by all means do it.
Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies: He's not your second-half poster boy, but he should be. Howard actually had the greatest OPS differential from the first to second half in 2005-09 of any player currently active, and it isn't close: his was .166. To compare, Teixeira's was .122 and the next-closest active number to Howard's was Asdrubal Cabrera's .147, and he's on the disabled list and out for an extended period. You might not think of Howard as a .300-capable hitter, but did you know that during his career he's a .303 second-half hitter who has averaged 52 home runs per 162 games played after the All-Star break? He has also homered at least 20 times and driven in 62 or more runs after the break in each of the past four seasons.
Not that fantasy owners can expect to acquire Howard at a deep discount, but he also shouldn't cost you first-round value yet is highly likely to perform at first-round value from today forward. One way to demonstrate that: He's currently on pace for 27 home runs for the entire 2010 season, but his average number of home runs simply after the All-Star break from 2006-09 was 25.
Adam LaRoche, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks: A well-known second-half performer, LaRoche has a lifetime OPS after the All-Star break 129 points higher than before it, not to mention .300/.363/.546 career second-half numbers, which look a heck of a lot like an All-Star's rates. He has batted .300 or greater after the break in five of his six big league years and has one more homer after the break than before it, despite playing in 149 fewer games after than before it. By the way, if LaRoche's .258 batting average to date is frustrating to you, one thing to be aware of is that on the morning of June 15 last year, he was a .256 hitter and batted .291 the rest of the way. He's currently 23rd among first basemen on the Player Rater, and should be priced accordingly, but doesn't he sound like a top-10-capable second-half first baseman accounting for his track record?
Howard Kendrick, 2B, Los Angeles Angels: We do need a non-first baseman on this list, right? Kendrick might not yet have developed into the kind of elite batsman he was in the minor league ranks, but once the All-Star break passes, he certainly looks similar to that minor league beast. He's a lifetime .323/.352/.459 second-half hitter, including having the majors' fifth-best batting average from July 1 forward last season among players with 150-plus plate appearances. One thing that plays in Kendrick's favor this year, making him such a strong trade target, is that the Angels, who in the past were more than willing to demote him to the minors for seasoning at times, have precious few alternatives to him at second base. Sure enough, he's the major leagues' leader in games at second base (65).
Billy Butler, 1B, Kansas City Royals: OK, it's back to the first basemen, but let's face it, Butler's track record makes him a must-have on this list. His owners have been surprisingly impatient with him judging by the many early questions about him, perhaps more because he's on pace for only 15 home runs than because he's batting a robust .335, but he's entirely capable of maintaining a high batting average, and his 49-double full-year pace hints that more power might be on the way. Butler tore up the AL with .314/.385/.540 rates after the All-Star break last year, and he has had a higher second- than first-half OPS in all three full big league seasons.
Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia Phillies: The huge risk on this list, but perhaps all the worry about his calf injury might serve to deflate his trade price tag? It seems like every season, whatever the reason for his early struggles, whether performance- or injury-related, Rollins gets himself straightened out once the All-Star break passes. To that point, in each of the past six years, he has managed at least two of the following feats in the second half:
• .280-plus batting average
• .800-plus OPS
• 14 or more home runs
• 21 or more stolen bases
In those six years combined, he has .296/.350/.507 numbers and averaged 11 homers, 20 steals and 57 runs scored. Is that not a chance worth taking?
Players you should sell
Justin Morneau, 1B, Minnesota Twins: Teixeira is the poster boy for second-half studs; conversely, Morneau is the poster boy for second-half stiffs. That statement probably sounds absurd right now, being that Morneau currently ranks ninth overall on the Player Rater and sports career bests in all the hitting ratio categories at .350/.460/.636, but don't forget those facts can just as easily outline a player's sell-high status as it does establish a new, higher value level. In Morneau's case, this wouldn't be the first time he has gotten off to a torrid start. Check out his numbers on the morning of June 15 the past two years:
2009: 65 G, .329/.401/.598, 16 HRs, 54 RBIs, 48 R
2008: 69 G, .307/.372/.491, 10 HRs, 51 RBIs, 37 R
Target Field hasn't exactly played well to power, sitting 28th in terms of home runs on the Park Factor page, and in a few weeks we'll take a closer look at the specifics. For now, it seems like Morneau's park hardly favors him looking forward.
Now, Morneau's career trends say Aug. 1 is the best date at which to part with him; he has .251/.325/.429 career rates and has averaged one homer per 28.4 at-bats after that date. But that's 46 days away, closer than you think, and the longer you wait the more you risk him cooling off and diminishing his trade value, and the more likely someone tries to lowball you using those facts against you.
One-liners: No one believes that Scott Rolen (3B, Cincinnati Reds) will maintain a 38-homer pace, and why should they? His OPS is currently .974, but the best second-half OPS he has turned in the past five years was .785 last season. Kevin Youkilis (1B/3B, Boston Red Sox) did have respectable second halves each of the past two seasons, both times batting higher than .300 with .900-plus OPS, but last year that actually represented slight regression. For his career, he has an .832 second-half OPS, 98 points lower than in the first half. Jose Bautista (3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays) is in a 2-for-32 funk in his past nine games, and his fantasy owners cannot be encouraged by the fact that he has .217/.310/.382 lifetime rates after the All-Star break. His performance last September (.257 AVG, 10 HRs, 21 RBIs) is the only time in his career during the second half that he has done anything especially meaningful. Dan Uggla (2B, Florida Marlins) is a .248 lifetime second-half hitter who has never had a number greater than .262 after the All-Star break in any of his four full big league seasons. He has retained value, yes, but not nearly to the levels he has before the break.
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.
Josh Hamilton, OF, Texas Rangers: Few hitters are as hot as Hamilton, who is batting .412 (21-for-51) with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 13 games in the month of June. He attributes his resurgence at the plate to the elimination of the "toe-tap" he previously used as a timing mechanism; he told the Rangers' website Monday that his aim is to have a "strong back side," keeping his weight on his back leg to generate better power from his hip. Whether or not that's the only impetus for his hot streak, just the fact that the change in approach has improved Hamilton's confidence at the plate is enough. At his best he can be one of the best hitters in the game, so just keep your fingers crossed he can remain healthy for the long haul, because that's typically his primary obstacle to an elite fantasy season.
Carlos Pena, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays: Streaky player, thy name is Carlos Pena. This past Saturday, he became the first player in nearly four years to hit a home run in six consecutive games, going 10-for-25 (.400 AVG) with seven homers total during that streak before it was snapped Sunday. It's not the first time he has endured such a brief hot spell; he hit .276 with four homers and 12 RBIs in an eight-game span April 9-18, .350 with eight homers in an 11-game span Aug. 21-Sept. 1, 2009, and .268 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in a 14-game span April 12-27, 2009, and that's just including stats from this and last season. Unfortunately, while Pena's stock has been on the rise, it still has its limits. His batting average has remained consistently beneath .200 every day since May 6, and he's on pace for a career-high 182 strikeouts. Owning him is going to be rough from time to time.
David Wright, 3B, New York Mets: His owners have been waiting all year for him to heat up at the plate, and finally, finally, he's performing like a top-25-capable player. Wright has eight multi-hit efforts in his past 13 games, batting .438 (21-for-48) with four homers and 14 RBIs, helping raise his season batting average 42 points to .286. He's making a bit more contact during that span, striking out just nine times (once per 5.33 at-bats), and much of that is a product of his performing better versus the fastball. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Wright has hit three homers off the fastball in June alone, and has a 1.429 OPS, 7.3 at-bat-per-home run ratio and 18.4 miss percentage versus the pitch this month.
Chris Young, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Another player you have to be patient with through his cold spells, Young appears to have flipped the switch back to "on" in June. A .118 hitter during a nine-game stretch from May 25-June 2, Young has batted .333 (12-for-36) with four homers and six stolen bases in 10 games since. That puts him back on pace for a 31-homer, 26-steal campaign, significant in that it would place him only one shy of his personal bests in either category, both set in 2007, though his .277 batting average would blow away his previous career high of .248. Young will be streaky for sure, but at this point he has had enough hot spells there's reason to believe he can keep up those paces.
Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas Rangers: It's difficult to knock Andrus for his contributions in his sophomore season, seeing that he has increased his batting average by 28 points while maintaining a pace of 48 stolen bases, or 15 more than he had as a rookie. Still, that he's the American League's leader in caught stealing (9) has to be of concern, and it definitely has troubled manager Ron Washington. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Washington will consider giving Andrus the red light on the base paths more often until his shortstop better recognizes his opportunities, something that might drop his stolen-base production, one of the primary assets he brings to the table in fantasy. Andrus has batted .247 in his past 19 games and stolen only one base in three tries despite reaching base 23 times via single, walk or hit batsman during that span. Doesn't it sound like Washington has already been reining Andrus in as a base stealer?
Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs: The grand question now is will the Cubs exercise patience with their struggling young shortstop? Castro did get off to a hot start in his first month as a big leaguer, but since the calendar turned to June he has batted just .162 (6-for-37) with one extra-base hit, a double, and one RBI in 11 games. What's more, he has committed eight errors, seventh-most among shortstops despite his having appeared in 18 fewer games than any of the shortstops who have more than him. Castro probably deserves more than a month and a half of seasoning, but if these Cubs have wild-card aspirations, they might not be willing to be patient with him for too much longer.
Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers: The dream had to end sometime. Jackson got off to a hot start, maintaining a .300-plus batting average every day since April 12, but he's bound to permanently fall beneath that number sometime during the next couple weeks. When you strike out more than four times for every walk (4.19:1 to be exact) and more than once every four at-bats (once per 3.73, again, to be exact), you're bound to be a streaky performer bound to settle in the .280 range or lower in the category. At the end of April, in fact, Jackson actually had an absurd .530 batting average on balls in play; even .400 is a ridiculously high -- and practically unsustainable -- number. And if he's not batting .300-plus with his modest full-season pace of 27 steals, then he's really a limited fantasy option.
Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore Orioles: Speaking of slumping youngsters, Wieters has been a colossal disappointment this year, particularly in comparison to his preseason expectations. He was widely advertised as a top-five potential fantasy catcher but has languished outside the top 20 for much of the year; he's currently 29th among catchers on the Player Rater. One of the problems is that Wieters hasn't been as disciplined; he has swung at 30.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this year, up from 25.7 as a rookie. He's also struggling with the fastball, as Inside Edge notes he has a .264 batting average against the pitch, down from .333 last year. Such trends suggest only minor adjustments are needed, but in the meantime, fantasy owners cannot ignore his lack of production.
Upgrade your roster
Add: Delmon Young, OF, Minnesota Twins.
Drop: Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers.
The aforementioned Jackson might be owned in 77.3 percent of ESPN leagues, but would it surprise you to learn that Young -- owned in only 36.3 percent -- actually bests the rookie in home runs (8-1), RBIs (40-14) and slugging percentage (.489-.412) while actually falling within range in batting average (Jackson leads, .308-.285), runs scored (36-26) and on-base percentage (.352-.325)?
Here's a prediction: Young will finish with the higher batting average of the two while blowing Jackson away in terms of homers and RBIs, and if that's the case, Young's overall fantasy value will have ended up higher at year's end. Young, after all, is a .290 lifetime hitter who has never finished beneath .284, and he's still only 24 years old, with enough time to continue to grow as a hitter. Jackson, meanwhile, was a .288 lifetime hitter in the minors.
Sure, Young has to tangle with Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome fighting for his at-bats between the corner outfield and designated hitter spots, and sure, during interleague play he's a risk to begin a lot of games on the bench. But Young is in the midst of a 13-game hot streak during which he's batting .340 (16-for-47) with four home runs and 15 RBIs. Might it be possible that only now -- in his fifth big league season -- he's finally starting to figure it out?
New position qualifiers
Twenty games: Omar Infante (3B).
Ten games: Carlos Guillen (2B), Aubrey Huff (OF), Buster Posey (1B), Kevin Russo (OF) and Neil Walker (2B).
Five games: Pat Burrell (OF), Mike Napoli (1B), Sean Rodriguez (SS) and Chad Tracy (3B).
One game: Jason Donald (2B).
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.