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Charging the Mound: Half Measures

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 4:15pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Charging - Half Measures

As you probably know, my wife and I have been catching up on Breaking Bad so that we can watch this current season as it unfolds. We're now up to the start of this season, having watched the last two episodes of Season 3 last night. Without revealing what happened in the episode, I was particularly struck by the scene where Mike, Gus' clean-up guy, talked to Walt about the inadequacy of half-measures (which lead to a result highly against his and his employer's interest). Besides thinking about just how good that scene was (and how much I like that character), I also thought about how that lesson applied to baseball trades, both in real life and especially in keeper fantasy leagues.

You wrote that the Yankees should trade for Ubaldo Jimenez this week, and I absolutely agree. The Yankees aren't merely looking to make the playoffs, they're looking to win the World Series. Right now they have a sure thing in CC Sabathia, but a number of question marks behind him in the rotation, certainly in comparison to their primary rivals in the AL (Boston and Texas) and the two most likely NL playoff teams (Philadelphia and San Francisco). I've supported GM Brian Cashman's instincts to preserve his farm system in the past, but I agree with you - if it takes Jesus Montero to get Jimenez, I'd go ahead and do it in his shoes. Don't waste time with the likes of Aaron Harang or even Hiroki Kuroda - the Yankees need to go bigger than that. Go big or go home.

The argument is even stronger in fantasy leagues, where the ability to rebuild a farm system is infinitely easier. I've heard of just one league that has 90-man rosters and 32 teams that even closely approximates the challenges faced by a major league franchise in building up its farm system. Most fantasy keeper leagues have 5-to-10 minor league spots, so the ability to reload quickly is there.

But the bigger takeaway is that if you're going to go for it and are willing to trade away future value, you absolutely must really go for it, and try to make the biggest impact on the categories (or on your overall roster if you're in a points league or a head-to-head league), and don't let a prospect stand in your way. This seems like obvious advice, but there's a greater point - even if it takes trading away Bryce Harper or Mike Trout, after you've made the decision that you have a chance to win it all, grab that brass ring, and really go after it. Don't go halfway. Your biggest competitors are going to make their dump trades too - and if you go in with the idea that you can probably win and still hoard your top prospects, there's a pretty good chance that you could fall short. Then you end up with the worst of worlds - not winning, and not setting yourself up fully for the long run. Don't make the decision to go for it lightly - but once you decide, really, really go after it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, it's even more accurate. While there are extra penalties for tanking in some leagues, in most leagues, once you've decided you can't compete in a given year, only halfway dumping does no good. You need to not only sell anything that's not going to be a core part of your team next year, but you also need to be targeting those acquisitions that will be that core. Don't wait for what might come to you - go after it and target those key pieces yourself. Make that first offer. If at first you don't get that key piece, don't settle on a secondary prospect - offer more of your own considerations on top. Don't make half-measures - really commit to rebuilding for the future.

Finally, don't confuse inexpensive players for good keepers just on the low price alone - this should also seem pretty apparent, but you see this happen all the time, when a team accepts a collection of low-priced magic beans for their stud player, rather than one bona fide keeper. That also means you should be willing to sell said low-priced players on your team, even if they could be useful next year, if they're not a core player. To give you an example, I have a $5 Angel Pagan that will be in his second year of his contract next year. He's useful, and probably a keep next year at the same price, but probably not after that, once he hits his option years. I got a pretty interesting offer for him though and pulled the trigger, because I don't think he'll do that much for me in 2013.

So ... does the analogy work for you? What other tips do you have for trading at the deadline, be it for real teams or fantasy teams? Do you have any other Breaking Bad analogies, or should we go back to poker metaphors?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 2:23am
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging - Half Measures

The analogy works for me. I've decimated my farm system in the Staff League - Travis Hafner, David Wright, Kevin Youkilis, Matt Holliday, Jesus Montero and Jeremy Hellickson were all moved as prospects, and it didn't always work out. Of course, I got premium players for the likes of Zach Duke, Anthony Reyes, Max Ramirez, Mike Minor and others, so on balance I'm happy with the results. The bottom line - in that league you get to draft up to 10 new minor leaguers every year. The replacement value is higher than many suspect, so unless you're getting a top-20-ish prospect, you shouldn't move one of your major-league stars - even if you're out of contention.

For the Yankees, their replacement value, given their payroll, is very high. Maybe Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances pans out, but unless they pan out huge, they won't be better than what the Yanks can freely buy either in the offseason or at the deadline. In other words, the Pirates absolutely should not part with two pitching prospects of that caliber for a Jimenez, but the Yanks should. The replacement value for the Pirates is far lower, and given the low cost of young players, gambling on prospects panning out has to be their strategy. But the bigger your payroll, the more it's worthwhile to deal potential for the surer thing.

In fantasy leagues, it's similar - you need to consider the replacement value of prospects and subtract that from your current minor leaguers to discern their value. I've had callers ask if they should trade for Mike Trout in a 12-team mixed keeper league where you keep three guys. Sure, Trout could be a superstar in a couple years, but how much better is he than a third round pick like Justin Upton, Kevin Youkilis or Josh Hamilton? Are you really going to keep Trout for 2012 in a league like that?

In deeper leagues, or leagues where you can't easily have a top-20 prospect filling out your couple minor-league slots, then Trout and Harper have far more value. I'd still trade them for a player who I thought might put me over the top - an expiring Clayton Kershaw or Adrian Gonzalez - but you better do the math first and be fairly sure you have a significant chance to win. There are no guarantees, but you don't part with Trouts or Harpers unless you think the haul will materially improve your title chances. The worst thing you can do is deal an A-plus prospect and fall far short. That means you screwed up. If you deal Trout for Kershaw and lose by a point in the last week, I think that's acceptable if Kershaw got you close. In that case, you gave yourself a legitimate chance to win, and it didn't pan out. But barring horrendous bad luck, you better be in contention down to the wire if you deal your sure-thing future stars.

The only other Breaking Bad analogy I have is from when Tuco busted Walt and Jesse for trying to poison him, and he put a gun to Jesse's head and asked Walt why. Walt responded: "You're an insane degenerate piece of filth, and you deserve to die."

That's how I feel about the star players for whom I trade premium prospects when those players underperform down the stretch. It's very frustrating.

But the tougher question is what to do when you're in fifth place or so, and you feel you have a 10 percent chance to win that could be boosted to 17-20, if you deal a key prospect. Is that worth moving a top-20 guy, or is that too low a success rate to play for this year? Because it's easy to go all-in when you're in first place and have a 60-plus percent chance to win, and it's easy to sell when you have less than a five-percent chance. But doesn't the difficulty occur between 10 and 25 percent? Isn't that where half measures might make some sense until your percentage either climbs dramatically or sinks to zero?

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 7:50pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging - Half Measures

I have a feeling that Clint Hurdle didn't use quite the same eloquent language towards Jerry Meals last night that Walt used towards Tuco, though the sentiment was probably pretty close. As Jonah Keri said when he filled in for you a few weeks ago, Robot Umpires please.

Of course, had Hurdle not blundered so badly in the first place, this wouldn't have been an issue. Seriously, I think Daniel McCutchen is still out there on the mound, and that he's already calling for another sac bunt the next time another Pirate reaches first base.

Going back to the topic at hand, yeah, you've nailed what the tough question is. And I don't think one size necessarily fits all. Look at the Brewers - I really thought that they should have traded Corey Hart last year and started the sell-off process. Instead, they saw a weak division, a fan base that was still showing up in droves (and filling their coffers), and a cycle where they might lose Prince Fielder after this season. Instead of thinking that they could extract good value in a trade for him and for Hart, they went the other way. They re-signed Hart, they traded their best prospects this offseason to get Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, and now they've traded for K-Rod. And it was a rational decision - they're still incomplete, but they're positioned to win the division still. They might feel the pain later on - and in fact, it could be Astros-like eventually - but they also have Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks inked long-term. Meanwhile, the Mets are about the same quality of team, but because they are in the same division as the Phillies and are miles behind the Braves for the wild card, it makes a whole lot more sense for them to sell.

Sometimes you err by not going for it, too. Look at the White Sox - the AL Central is just so soft (when the Indians got no-hit by Ervin Santana today, every single team in the division had a negative or .500 run differential), they have an old team with a veteran manager that's not going anywhere, and once they start to rebuild, it's going to be a long road given their farm system. What were they thinking with today's trade of Edwin Jackson going to the Jays? If Edwin Jackson and change could have netted them Colby Rasmus, why weren't they making that deal, rather than settling for Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart? (And I don't get the Cardinals' side of this either, but at least I can see how it might help them in the short run.) We have a few more days to see what they're going to do, but I don't like what the White Sox did.

Turning that over to the roto side, I guess I can see a case for that 15% team to take half-measures, at least if there's a payoff that's significant enough for the non-winning money spots. But much of that probably depends exactly on the variables of the league - the more players you keep, the greater number of teams in the league, the less advisable that strategy becomes.

The other real skill is determining how to calculate that likelihood of winning. While you could just use a basic formula of total points behind and number of teams that you have to pass, to really do it right you should also break down the categories to see where you realistically can gain (and lose) points, what personnel issues you and your rivals have, and what trade options your rivals also have. I don't think it's an easy calculation - more of an art and less of a science. When it comes to this determination, are you a Man of Science or a Man of Faith? Or is it heresy to invoke Lost when we've been talking about Breaking Bad?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 8:45pm
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging - Half Measures

Right, it's hard to fathom why the White Sox didn't just speak to the Cardinals directly, eliminate the middleman and get Rasmus to replace Alex Rios whom they've already benched. The Cardinals for whatever reason can't deal with Rasmus, but it seems like they sold him awfully cheap given his age and his production last year as a 23-year old center fielder.

As to the question of science or faith, the answer should be science. But because the science of predicting short-term future player performance is so imprecise, faith usually plays an important part. At some point, you guess you have a 25 percent chance (or whatever threshold is high enough for you to mortgage the farm), and you make your decision to go for it. At that point, you have to forget your 3:1 dog status and operate as if you're destined to win as long as you make every possible effort. Once you commit, the odds don't matter.