Often during the offseason I find myself thinking about fantasy baseball. While I am sure many of our readers spend the winter months ranking players, I spend a good chunk of time brainstorming strategies for drafts and in-season moves. Over the next few weeks the internet will be flooded with "buy low, sell high" articles endorsing trading the flavors of the week for proven players off to slow starts. There's a large flaw in that concept, though. This is not 1998 and fantasy owners are smarter than ever. People just aren't likely to give up on stars for a discounted price anymore.so flipping Didi Gregorious for Jason Heyward doesn't seem as plausible as it may have been in the past. While thinking about this problem during the offseason, I had an epiphany: if I can't trade for proven players off to start, maybe I should target the unproven players that I think can sustain their early success. How many owners "sold high" on Jose Bautista in 2010 or R.A. Dickey last season? If someone instead "bought high" on those those player, they probably rode that decision all the way to a league title.
Sadly, I must point out that two weeks after my big offseason revelation, I found out that Mike Podhorzer beat me to the idea back in 2011, but I digress. More important than who came up with the idea is focusing on how we can utilize the strategy this season.
First though, it should be noted that this strategy is not for the faint of heart or the spineless. I don't mean any disrespect by saying that, but you better be prepared for some raised eyebrows and chuckles when buying high or selling low. If you are feeling unsure, just remember that anyone that traded Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren, or Jon Lester for R.A. Dickey early last season would have been the one laughing at year's end.
Now, let's move on to the early Buy High and Sell Low candidates:
After seemingly coming out of nowhere to blast 33 homeruns last season, Davis has been even better to start 2013. "Even better" may be a bit of an understatement considering he has been the best hitter in baseball thus far. Through 20 games, Davis has 7 home runs, 22 runs batted in, and a cool .366 batting average. And I believe he keeps hitting all season long. Not only has Davis been lacing the ball all over the diamond, he also is being much more selective, swinging at less pitches this season. When he does swing though, he is making much more contact, increasing his contact rate by nearly 7%. The stark change in approach has led to a vastly improved walk rate and a 10% drop in his strikeout rate. If these changes are for real, and I believe they are, Davis will be a top-20 player. While I don't know if he reaches that level, I do see him finishing as a top-7 first baseman and a top-20 outfielder.
Do you remember when Travis Hafner was an annual second round fantasy pick? From 2004-2006 he averaged more than 90 runs, 30 home runs, and 100 runs batted in a season while hitting over .300 each year. Then the decline came and it came quickly. He hit 24 home runs in 2007 and he has not topped 20 again since. Yes, he has battled injuries, but even when he has been on the field he has not been the same hitter he once was. Flash forward to 2013, and Hafner seems rejuvenated with the Yankees. He already has 5 home runs, and he isn't showing signs of slowing down. As a left-handed hitter, Yankee stadium is the perfect ballpark for him and that alone may make him a 40 home run hitter. And Hafner is the rare slugger that can help your average as well. Unfortunately he may be UTL only all season, but Hafner will be a productive enough hitter for any spot in a fantasy lineup.
Duda was on a ton of sleeper lists (including my own) entering the 2012 season, making his .239/.329/.389 line such a disappointment. Now, after a tremendous start to this campaign, last season seems like a distant past. The Met's outfielder is hitting .273 with 5 home runs and a .386 isolated power. Like Davis, Duda has been much more selective so far this season, swinging at under 30% of the pitches he's been thrown and has the Major's second highest walk rate after only Joey Votto. Albeit it a tiny sample, that is a significant deviation from his past approach. He also is hitting more fly balls, which should lead to more balls leaving the yard. Maybe I'm just letting Duda fool me once more, but I think he has 25 more home runs in him this season.
If you saw any of my preseason rankings, you will already know that I believed in Cabrera entering the season. I like the stolen base potential, but I didn't expect the five category contribution. Already he has matched his home run total from last year and his average sits at .313. I will say that despite the new dimensions of Petco Park I don't think the home runs will continue, as his 20% HR/FB rate seems slightly unsustainable. The average, though, is a different story. This season he's swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone, walking more, and he's cut his strikeout rate in half. Plus, with his speed and propensity to hit line drives and ground balls, we should expect a .350-.360 BABIP. And if his average jumps 40-60 points from last season, his steals total should rise as well, making Cabrera a candidate to finish in the top-5 at a shallow position.
Paul Malholm, SP, Braves
Over the last two seasons, Malholm has been a mid-rotation fantasy option, finishing with ERAs of 3.66 and 3.67, but this season, he has kicked it up another notch, allowing just 3 earned runs in his first four starts. The early success can be contributed to two things: a large jump in strikeouts (6.67/9 last year to 8.54/9 this year) and a refusal to give up the long ball (just one so far). Detractors will point to his .212 BABIP and 93.5% strand rate as signs he has been lucky, but no one posts a 1.03 without some good fortune. More telling is his 2.87 FIP, pointing to a pitcher that has been very good so far. I think Malholm owners are probably concerned their carriage is about to turn back into a pumpkin, allowing you to take advantage and pick up a solid fantasy starter on the cheap.
First and foremost, I didn't like Jason Kipnis coming into the season. I ranked him below Rickie Weeks, Jose Altuve, Neil Walker, and Dan Uggla among others, citing his awful second half, fluky steals, and drop in power as cautionary reasons to avoid the second baseman. Well, the masses seemed to disagree, as Kipnis was hailed as a top-5 second baseman and drafted early in most leagues. I am not going to say "I told you so" quite this early into the season, but Kipnis has done nothing to prove me wrong to this point. He is striking out in more than a quarter of his trips to the plate, and his isolated power and fly ball rates are awful for someone who is supposed to be a 20 homerun threat. Luckily, I think many view Kipnis relatively the same as they did this preseason, so the opportunity to deal him for nearly full value remains. If you can flip him for someone like Daniel Murphy, jump all over that as soon as possible.
Pump the brakes before you kill me in the comments on this one. Kemp's inclusion on this list does not mean I think he will continue to hit .247 with no power. It simply means I don't think he will live up to his first round draft selection, and now is the time to cash in on that value. Like I have mentioned throughout this article, it is super early. Still, this piece by Chad Young at Fangraphs shows that Matt Kemp is hitting fly balls nearly 75 feet shorter this year than he was last year. That's a red flag, especially for a player coming off a shoulder injury. Who knows if that trend is going to turn around, and despite some early steals, he is not a 30+ steal player any longer. If Kemp's power doesn't return, which it may not, he will be a very mediocre fantasy option this year. I can't say with any certainty if that will be the case, but I know I would have no problem dealing him right now if I could get full value.
Gincarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins
This one really pains me because I was so high on Stanton coming into the year, ranking him fourth overall. I knew it would be bad, I just didn't realize how bad the Marlins offense would be. I still believe in Stanton's talent, but opposing teams are simply choosing to take the bat out of his hands right now. While some will point out that he has only one intentional walk thus far, I look at the fact that he has seen fewer strikes per pitch of any hitter with at least 50 plate appearances as a clear sign that teams are working around the young slugger. He's still going to be a valuable player to the Fish, but fantasy owners expecting 45 bombs and 110 RBIs may be in for a disappointing season.
Craig is another player I expected big things from this season, ranking him very aggressively at first base and in the outfield. He has been slow out of the gate, hitting just .264 with no homers in his first 18 games, and he is showing some of the alarming trends I have mentioned. He has a walk rate that is way down, an O-Swing% that is up, and an early reduction in his line drive rate. Craig is a player that relies on his BABIP for a good portion of his value, so any regression in those areas will really hurt him. I must say though, that he concerns me less than our other sell low candidates. I think he still will be a solid player, but I do worry about playing time in St. Louis, as rookie Matt Adams has been great so far, and the team has many capable players on the Major League roster and in the upper minors (Oscar Taveras anyone?). Again, if I was using a worry meter, he would be relatively low, but if could grab, say Chris Davis for him, I would do that in a heartbeat.
For a long time, Morrow was a sabermetric daring, regularly totaling outstanding strikeout totals and low rates in the fielding-independent pitching metrics. Then last season, Morrow's profile flipped, as he failed to even strikeout a batter an inning while his ERA finished much better than his FIP and xFIP. Through four starts, it looks like he is continuing the developments from last year. Morrow's strikeout rate currently sits at a paltry 15.3%, mainly due to a SwSt% of just 6.5%. Morrow is a fly ball pitcher, who pitches in a hitter's league and ballpark, so the drop in strikeouts will really hurt him. I wouldn't bet on a return to top-25 status, so I would recommend dealing him while he still has value.
There you have it, our Buy High and Sell Low candidates through 12% of the season. This early in the season there are plenty of candidates for both lists, so if there are other players you think should have made either list, let's discuss them in the comments. Remember, this strategy is not for the faint of heart, but if you can muster up the courage to take a chance, you may just find yourself with the next breakout player.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.
You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.