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Charging the Mound: When Does It Make Sense To Cut Losses?

Chris Liss

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

Jeff Erickson

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

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 1:26pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging

On Friday's SXM show, a listener called in concerned about Hanley Ramirez, and Peter Schoenke and I debated whether Ramirez is someone about whom you can ever justifiably worry, so long as he's healthy. In other words, can a superstar position player at age 27 who's done it for years simply fall off without getting hurt, traded out of Coors or traded to Petco? We solicited feedback and considered every top-15 overall player that dropped off the map, and almost all of them were either injured (Todd Helton, Travis Hafner), in their mid 30s (Roberto Alomar, Sammy Sosa) or already declining to the point where they were outside of the top-15 (Andruw Jones, Shawn Green) the year before. One player who was top-25-ish, healthy and in his prime was Carlos Baerga who hit .314 or better for four straight years with 15 homers or more as a second baseman before crashing at age 27. But Baerga was no Hanley Ramirez.

And I'm not talking about a down year where Ramirez goes 18 HR, 25 SB and bats .290. That would be unfortunate considering where he was drafted, but would likely not be the reason you didn't win. I'm talking about a total collapse. Is it even possible? Is there ever a time one should panic and take 85 cents on the dollar, say deal Ramirez for Kevin Youkilis or Matt Holliday? Does your answer to this question change if we sub in Carl Crawford for Ramirez? And what happens when we go further down the cheat sheet to Brett Gardner or Nick Markakis (both also 27)? Assuming he keeps his job, is there any danger he could simply lose the ability to get on base this year? At what point do we give up on an established player that's struggling early on? I realize the typical answer is to wait it out and not sell low, and for the most part that's sound advice, certainly better than panicking based on a small sample every time you're not getting immediate gratification for a high draft pick. But is it optimal to sit inflexibly and wait for your player to turn it around? Might there be some instances where you sell the stock on the way down before it's worthless?

On the flip side, is it possible to buy high, while a player's still on the way up and make a profit? We talked about Jose Bautista on the radio yesterday, and I said I'd take him mid first-round if we were to draft over again. And by that I mean ahead of Mark Teixeira, David Wright, Carl Crawford and Robinson Cano. But when we asked the question of our listeners, most of them (and you) considered him a second-round pick. That means I might still be able to buy him for one of those players. In fact, I could imagine a Crawford owner in a savvy league, offering him for Bautista straight up and getting it done. Which side of that swap would you prefer?

The craziest thing about Bautista is the only question anyone considered was how much he would regress to the mean this year. To your credit, you had him at 38 homers, one of the more aggressive projections out there, but that's still 16 homers less than he hit last year. No one I can think of ever even floated the possibility that he'd be *better* in 2011. But as I wrote in our blog Bautista's start so far makes last year's breakout seem quaint by comparison as he's sporting a .364/.517/.788 line with eight homers and 21 walks against 15 strikeouts. And that's while missing three games to attend the birth of his first daughter.

The other player that mirrors Bautista this year - though last year his breakout was built on a firmer foundation from previous seasons - is Jered Weaver. Like Bautista, the only debate about Weaver was how much he'd regress to the mean, i.e., would he be 2010 Zack Greinke, or could he come closer to duplicated what was so obviously a career year. So far Weaver is 6-0 with a 49:10 K:BB in 45 IP, a .99 ERA and a .79 WHIP. Is it possible Weaver really is the best pitcher in the American League? Where does he fall on your SP cheat sheet right now?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 2:21pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: RE: Charging

It's easier to believe in the positive (Bautista, Weaver) than the negative, at least when the player is at the elite level. When an elite player tanks, we tend to search harder for the reasons, but unfortunately those reasons don't get revealed until after the fact and often smack of an excuse ("hiding an injury," "going through a divorce," etc...). Even the statistical explanations for a player's slump aren't that revealing. Look at Hanley Ramirez - we talked Monday about how his ground ball rate went up significantly last year (51.0%), and in this year's tiny sample that rate is even higher (59.3%). But that doesn't explain why his ground balls are up, nor is it necessarily predictive that he'll keep hitting ground balls.

That said, your question about whether there's a situation where it makes more sense to sell than to wait for the player to turn things around is a really important question. Basically it's a matter of faith - either you're going to find out a reason for the player's slump, too late, after the damage is done, or he's going to turn it around. You can keep trying to dig for information, but you really don't want to find anything, because if you do find that reason, chances are it'll continue to impact the player for the rest of the season. So at the end of the day, it really becomes a matter of tolerance - how much are you willing to put up with the slow start and to take the chance that this is really a small sample size issue? I tend to be on the more patient side of things and hold onto the player. I have a hard time identifying the circumstances where it makes more sense to sell the stock on the way down, so if I'm going to err, it's going to be on the side of holding on.

Speaking of Gardner, Scott Pianowski offered him to me for Jeff Francoeur on Monday, unfortunately when I was at my daughter's tennis lesson, and by the time I saw the e-mail, he had already pulled the trigger on a Gardner-for-Seth Smith deal. Just as you have to act quickly to grab a free agent, you also have to act quickly to pull off a favorable trade. But to answer your secondary question, yeah, it's easier to sell a player like Gardner that's farther down the list. He has less job security, and the floor is presumably much lower than for someone like Crawford or Hanley. So I get what Scott is doing here - and in fact, I like his return in Seth Smith for Gardner.

I definitely think it's possible to buy high on breakout guys like Bautista, and I'd bet that you wouldn't have to part with Carl Crawford to pull it off. Just look at the reaction to your Moving the Needle blog - you're still getting past BABIP from Bautista cited as a factor in evaluating his value now. I see him as a significantly changed player, and not just a hot starter. I prefer the Bautista side than the Crawford side of that trade, by the way.

Derek VanRiper and I talked about Weaver and where he ranks on Tuesday's show, and RotoWire's Kevin Payne was prodding me to have Weaver ranked higher starting back in February. I've moved him up to sixth overall, second among AL starters behind Felix Hernandez. I'm willing to back King Felix's track record and ballpark still ahead of Weaver, though it's at least close. The funny thing for Weaver is that he put up some crazy good numbers like this after his promotion to the majors, though in a half-season. Anyhow, here's my top five ahead of Weaver:

1. Roy Halladay
2. Tim Lincecum
3. Felix Hernandez
4. Josh Johnson
5. Clayton Kershaw

Finally, as you heard on-air, I was offered Weaver and Juan Rivera for Bautista in a 12-team, AL-only league where I'm hurting for starting pitching. I don't think I'm going to do it, but it's enough to make me think about it at least. What are your thoughts on that deal. What sort of additional player plus Weaver would it take for you to part with Bautista?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 5:29pm
Subject: Re: Charging

I wouldn't do it because I'd pay $36 or so for Bautista and $25 for Weaver. I wouldn't pay $11 for Rivera at this point, given his uncertain playing time. The reason I'd go lower on Weaver is you're only getting his going forward numbers, and $25 is pretty much what the top tier of AL starters (except for King Felix and Jon Lester) went for in AL-only expert leagues this year. So you'd have to find someone worth $11 right now. That might be Michael Brantley, Matt Joyce, someone like that. Basically Rivera if he were off to a normal start and more likely to keep the job. But even then, that would only be break-even, and why break even in April? It seems you'd want to win by a little bit, especially if he's offering the trade. I'd be much happier getting Matt LaPorta or Justin Smoak as the second player. Even better, why not give Moyer back a non-zero pitcher and get back an even better bat? Say you give up a $5 pitcher and get a $16 player. And if you want to make a small profit, call it an $18 player.

I do like that Pianowski is willing to sell low on his players like Gardner (and also Carlos Pena whom he swapped for Adam LaRoche), as it goes against all that fantasy-expert drivel about "buy-low/sell-high" which typically is impossible, and also doesn't simply punt on the question of whether a highly-drafted player is on his way to a collapse, but instead attempts to figure it out before it happens. He'll be wrong on some of these guys - I happen to think Pena will hit - but at least he's trying to identify who's worth selling at 90 cents on the dollar. And just as no one considered that Bautista or Weaver would have an even better year in 2011, few savvy owners will even consider whether Hanley Ramirez or Carl Crawford will collapse. While these scenarios are unlikely, they're certainly possible, and it's worth keeping in mind so that if it does happen, you'll be able to get out before it's too late. I'm actually a little more worried about Crawford who was a superstar in large part due to his defense and baserunning, and as a lefty in Fenway park might not hit for much power. Combine that with the added pressure of the big market and the big contract, and I could see him having an off year. Luckily, I don't own him, so I'm not faced with the actual question, but I'd at least consider moving him for Dustin Pedroia if I needed a MI or the King if I needed some pitching.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 11:00pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging

There's one other point that's worth bringing up related to your final comment. One difference between daily move leagues and weekly move leagues is that it forces us to make more decisions. If we're constantly trying to fill open lineup spots, that forces us to decide more often who to cut. Of course, that increases the error rate, especially in a mixed league format like this, where there's always going to be some viable players out there. So if we're going to risk making the wrong decision on an add/drop, shouldn't we be willing to take that chance more often in trades? Yet I've always found it harder to pull the trigger on a trade than on an add/drop. I think that's a leak in my game, one I need to remedy. That necessarily entails at times being willing to sell low. Now that I've said that, I can't wait for the flood of lowball offers that will be sure to come my way.