Roster Doctor Fantasy Mailbag: Love in the Time of Pitching Injuries

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Bienvenue, mes amis! It’s time for another visit with the Roster Doctor. If you’re joining us for the first time, here are the rules: Send your fantasy baseball questions to grantlandfantasy@gmail.com, and the Doctor will answer them once a month, in iambic pentameter.*

(*OK, probably not in iambic pentameter.)

Here we go:

How do I handle Jose Fernandez in a keeper league? Short bench in NL-only league, no extra DL spots. I’ve been in top 3 most of the way; thinking I should deal him for a bat.
—Ryan

The most important factor for completing a fantasy trade is also the simplest: Offer something the other person wants. And there’s no way in hell that a keeper-league owner who’s already out of contention this year wouldn’t fall all over himself to get Fernandez for next year. Given Tommy John surgery’s high success rate, trading for Fernandez now is the equivalent of sitting on a top prospect you know will be up by the 2015 All-Star break at the latest, and will probably pitch like … Jose Fernandez.

Beyond that, the only rule for fantasy trading is that there shouldn’t be any rules. Most MLB teams won’t make a significant trade until July, and they certainly wouldn’t shop a player like Fernandez at this stage of his career. Luckily, fantasy owners aren’t bound by any such restrictions. So go ahead and dangle Fernandez or anyone else who might interest your league-mates. Yoo-hoo showers fly forever. (Or something.)

Give me a reason to keep holding on to Carlos Santana in a non-keeper league.  I recently grabbed the Jaso-Norris Oakland platoon which is giving me far far better results and Santana’s roster spot looks like dead weight with every passing 0 for 4 day.
—Beau

Here’s the checklist of questions you want to ask and answer before deciding whether a big performance swing over a few dozen games has any deeper meaning, and thus whether or not you should drop a given player:

1. Is he a pitcher? As we’ve seen, pitchers get hurt all the time, the severity of their injuries tends to be greater, and what can look like a little performance blip can turn into a more serious problem. Position players, by contrast, tend to stay healthier and deliver more predictable year-to-year results.

2. Is he injured? If so, that can mess with his numbers, even if he’s not yet on the disabled list.

3. Is he old? While we tend to overreact when over-30 players’ numbers start to slip (ahem), it is true that older players are more likely to suddenly decline even absent injury.

4. Who would you get instead? This one’s pretty self-explanatory.

Now let’s go through the checklist for Santana.

1. Is he a pitcher? No.

2. Is he injured? Unless someone’s hiding something, no.

3. Is he old? He’s 28 and playing in just his fifth major league season, so no.

4. Who would you get instead? In daily leagues, pulling off a platoon like Beau’s Jaso-Norris combination is actually a pretty good way to get solid value at a low cost. Even so, Santana was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball from 2011 through 2013, averaging 22 homers, 76 RBIs, and 77 runs scored per year. If he can return to that form, he’ll remain a top fantasy catcher.

The question is, will he? He’s hitting for less power so far this year, and is batting an impossibly low .153. Normally I’d point to his .172 batting average on balls in play — more than 100 points below league average and easily the lowest mark in baseball — and declare his slow start a giant fluke. However, Santana is making extraordinarily weak contact, sitting on MLB’s third-lowest line-drive rate and hitting more ground balls than ever before. And we’ve reached the point of the season when we can start to trust some of those indicators.

So it’s a tough call, and it might come down to personal preference. If you’re in a 10-team mixed league that starts only one catcher and you’re nearing the point when Santana’s struggles are affecting your ability to run your team calmly and rationally (fantasy baseball can mess with your head!), then sure, pick up Jason Castro or someone similar and don’t sweat it. If, however, you’re in a 12-team league or deeper, or play in a league that starts two catchers, you pretty much have to keep Santana.

I’m holding firm near the top of my roto league despite injuries requiring me to carry Cuddyer, Harper, and Hamilton for a good while. In the past week I also lost Abreu and Cashner to the DL while Lowrie and Hill are both day to day and not playing. With only one DL slot, would you recommend just taking the hit for a week or two since most of those guys will be back soon or should I just be harsh cutting guys in order to stay afloat? Also, what drink do you recommend?
—Ben

Let’s start with the good news: Michael Cuddyer, Aaron Hill, and Jed Lowrie are back, while Josh Hamilton should return this weekend or early next week. Now for the bad news: That still leaves Bryce Harper, Jose Abreu, and Andrew Cashner on the shelf with no set timetable for their returns. If your league has one or two DL spots and you can stash all three guys there or on your bench, great.

That said, it’s never a bad time to at least sniff around for a trade. Maybe there’s some pitching-poor owner in your league who’s ready to offer 90 cents on the dollar for Cashner. Making that move would free up a bench spot while also allowing you to hand Cashner’s lingering injury risk over to another owner. You could even try to swap Cashner for an injured position player, since pitching injuries are maddening and often turn into more than anticipated, while position player injuries bring slightly less risk. In other words, much like Cashner is with his hair, be creative.

As for a recommended drink, try La Fin Du Monde. It’s delicious, it’s got enough alcohol to get you going in a hurry, and it’s brewed in my home province of Quebec. Plus, fin du monde means “end of the world” in English, which is appropriate given the absurd rash of injuries that’s rocked the sport this year. (For the record, #JonahHex remains alive and well.)

How should fantasy owners think of Jean Segura given last year’s breakout and this year’s quiet start?
—Andrew

I’d worry. Well, not me personally, because I traded him away a few weeks ago in my 18-team mixed league after spending too much money on him at the auction, but you know what I mean. While evaluating players based on first- and second-half splits can be misleading for numerous reasons — arbitrary end points, ignoring larger data sets, looking for patterns where they don’t necessarily exist — Segura’s pre- and post-All-Star splits last year were truly jarring. He hit .325/.363/.487 before the break and .241/.268/.315 after, and though that second-half performance was something close to a worst-case scenario, Segura’s minor league numbers support the idea that he’s a player who hits for average (.313) and steals a ton of bases (139 bags in 399 games), but rarely walks or hits homers (126 free passes and 26 homers in 1,755 plate appearances).

A shortstop who hits .300 and steals 40 bases would be very valuable in fantasyland even if he did almost nothing else, but those numbers are hardly a given for Segura, whose walk rate has slipped even further and now ranks among the worst in the majors. Pitchers are starting to figure out his free-swinging ways, and they’re getting him to chase more pitches out of the strike zone. What’s more, the Brewers have grown fed up enough with Segura’s poor results to start dropping him to sixth or seventh in the order, which could hurt his run, RBI, and stolen-base totals.

Andrew, you can’t drop Segura outright because elite steals guys are so hard to find, and that’s doubly true for potential elite steals guys who play short. But I wouldn’t count on seeing those first-half 2013 numbers again any time soon.

While we’re talking about young Brewers: Khris Davis believers should be similarly worried. Davis posted great power numbers in limited at-bats last year, but he was never a big prospect, he’s struggled with pitch recognition in the past, and he’s so out of sorts this year that the Brewers are now starting to bench him against right-handed pitching.

Could you please tell me what the hell I’m supposed to do with Juan Francisco? Buy? Sell?
—Rob  

He’s a deeply flawed player who’s going to drive his manager crazy with his constant whiffs and lousy defense. Last year’s numbers (18 homers and a .227 average in 385 plate appearances) are a solid baseline for what to expect this year: He won’t hit .286 much longer, because he won’t have 37.5 percent of balls in play fall in for hits much longer. Third base isn’t the deepest position in the world, so he remains rosterable for now. But if someone in your league thinks Francisco might be for real, sell sell sell.

What to do with Justin Masterson?
—Scott

He’s no better than a streaming option in standard 12-team mixed leagues or shallower. Sure, some of his peripheral numbers (strikeouts, home runs) aren’t that far off from what he did last year, when he won 14 games and posted a 3.45 ERA. But the Indians’ defense is absolutely atrocious, the worst in the majors per Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved stat, and the second-worst by UZR. Having Santana and Nick Swisher man the corner-infield spots is a disaster, and second base has been pretty lousy, too, with both Jason Kipnis and Mike Aviles turning in below-average results. That’s how Cleveland has wound up with a pitcher like Masterson posting a sky-high ground-ball rate and still giving up way too many runs.

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There are some reasons for optimism, though, starting with a flukishly low strand rate that’s likely to improve as the season wears on; both Masterson and rotation mate Zach McAllister have been terribly unlucky regarding the number of runners they put on base who come around to score, even after controlling for Cleveland’s leaky defense. So if Masterson’s sitting on waivers in your league, you can pick him up, spot him against weak opponents, and hope for better results. But expecting much more than that, given his career-high walk rate this year, his declining fastball velocity, the number of other reasonable starting candidates available in shallower leagues, and that ugly defense, might be asking for trouble.

Who or what trickster god is responsible for injuring all the pitchers? And what can we mortals do to appease him?
—Takao 

I’ve referenced the concept of streaming a few times here, but you should read Matthew Berry’s excellent treatise on this, which he calls “The Wandy Line.” Basically, the logic is that there are so few really good, really reliable arms in the game that in a 12-team mixed league or shallower, you should treat the vast majority of pitchers like babies north of the Wall, sacrifice them to shadowy forces, and move on. Of course, this season has been so cursed that even Wandy can’t be trusted as a spot starter anymore!

Injuries to Fernandez and other top pitchers might prompt others in your league to panic about scarcity and try to acquire as many remaining aces as they can, but when even supremely unassailable commodities like Cliff Lee, who’d never missed a start because of an arm injury until now, are going down, it’s safe to wonder if you can trust anyone. This might be a good year to test out a strategy of extreme agnosticism, where you hold onto one or two starters and then trust Tristan Cockcroft’s weekly pitcher rankings for tips on plug-in starters who can fill the rest of your roster. Then you can ride Clayton Kershaw and your cast of thousands to fantasy glory. Uhhh … hopefully, anyway.

Filed Under: Carlos Santana, Fantasy Baseball, injuries, Jean Segura, Jonah Keri, Jose Fernandez, Juan Francisco, Justin Masterson, MLB, Roster Doctor

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri