Roster Doctor Mailbag: No, It’s Never Too Early for Fantasy Baseball Advice

Jon Durr/Getty Images

Pitching staff got you down? That hot rookie causing more headaches than he’s worth? Are you in 10th place in your league and wondering how it all went wrong? Or are you in first, crippled by the insecurity that it’ll all come crashing down any week now?

Good news, fellow fantasy baseball traveler! The Roster Doctor is in, and he’s taking your questions. Let’s go to the mailbag.

Isn’t the answer to every question, “It’s April”?
—Z.P.

Excellent attempt by Z.P. to break up this party before it’s even started. Small sample size is always a concern when trying to make sense of early-season results.1 But if you’re trying to find next-level advantages, it’s worth at least considering the ways in which you might be able to sniff out the rare instances when unusual early stats prove to be at least somewhat sustainable.

If you’re going to gamble, targeting players in their mid-twenties who look primed for a breakout (Salvador Perez?) or players who carried some health concerns but now look healthy (Matt Harvey?) can be a good, aggressive strategy. Also keep an eye out for “signature significance”: When guys do something completely off the charts — i.e., Alex Rodriguez hitting a 477-foot home run — it’s often an indicator that they’re better (or still better) than we might’ve thought.

Thinking of offering Nolan Arenado to acquire Kris Bryant. Thoughts?
—D.S.

As a Kris Bryant owner, is it even possible to entertain trade offers? How do you begin to quantify what his worth is compared to slow starters around the league? And if I’m a Cubs fan with Bryant as a $6 keeper, do I just keep dancing until Joe Maddon brings a snake into the clubhouse?
—M.N.

I regret trading Kris Bryant. Background: My only catcher was Yan Gomes. I was catcher-less after he hit the DL. The trade: Kris Bryant and Anthony Gose for Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Gordon, and Jason Grilli. Although Lucroy and Gordon had been slumping, I was pleased to be filling the most gaping hole on my roster with one of the best catchers in the game. I felt good about this trade for about three days, then started to get a weird feeling in my stomach, and then Lucroy broke his toe.
—Z.F.

First, some general thoughts about how to handle a mega-talented call-up like Bryant.2 My approach is to always try to sell high. That window of a few hours, between news of the call-up breaking and the prospect’s first game action, becomes a delirious echo chamber of hype, but the bottom line is that succeeding in the majors is tough, and players usually need some time before they figure it all out. Give me the more established player over the raw rookie any day. What goes for Bryant also applies to Addison Russell, as well as Noah Syndergaard and any other big-time prospects who might come up this year: It should take only one league owner to overreact for you to pounce.

With Bryant, yes, there’s a scenario in which he cranks 35 bombs and wins someone your league. One thing that’s impressed me were his early adjustments. He went from striking out three times in his debut to learning to lay off bad pitches, and he’s gone 9-for-21 with four doubles and a .586 on-base percentage. I’d still favor a more established player over Bryant, but if you can’t find that irrational shopper, there are worse spots to be in than hanging tight and waiting for dingers.

Oh, and Z.F.? That was a great trade that happened to backfire due to Lucroy’s fluky injury. Still exactly the kind of deal I’d be trying to make.

nelson-cruz-hitOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Buying Devon Travis? Enough to trade Dustin Pedroia/Marcell Ozuna for Matt Kemp/Jason Kipnis?
—R.J.

How long do I hang on to Nelson Cruz for? Should I sell high on him soon before he falls back to earth?
—K.M.

Travis wasn’t necessarily adored by scouts coming up through Detroit’s system, but he did hit well, slashing .323/.388/.487 in 257 minor league games. He was a high-contact hitter with good gap power and a good idea of the strike zone, all ingredients that could play at the big league level. Put him in one of the most offense-friendly parks in the majors and give him a clean shot at a starting second-base job, and I mean, it can’t be considered a total shock, right? So yes, I do like Travis. And I like the Kemp and Kipnis side of this deal regardless. If there were some alternate universe in which I could get you to buy low on both Kipnis and Ozuna, I’d want to go there.

As for Cruz, I do like the idea of selling high. Unlike Travis, who hasn’t done enough to cause anyone to overbid for him, Cruz led the majors last year in homers and is doing so again this season. But he’s also slugging better than .700 and is on pace to hit approximately 312 bombs this year. However, Cruz turns 35 in July, and those twin 159-game seasons in 2012 and 2014 are exceptions to an injury-plagued career. Also, of Cruz’s eight homers this season, four have barely cleared the outfield wall, according to ESPN HitTracker. Don’t think of trading Cruz as a case of potentially losing the guy who’s carrying your team. Think about the rich reward you might get for unloading one of baseball’s top regression candidates.

How soon is too soon to cut bait on a struggling semi-high-tier player that you had doubts about entering the season? Someone like Brian Dozier, for instance — there were reasons to be skeptical of him going into the year, and now he’s looking much more like the league-average guy from the second half of 2014, rather than the 20/20 guy from the first. At the same time, he still has that 20/20 potential, and it’s only April. Would you hang onto someone like that and hope for the best, or try to sell before it gets any worse? Or is it ever OK to cut bait if someone more promising is sitting on the waiver wire?
—J.D.

I’ve been riding the Brett Lawrie fantasy baseball train of mediocrity for the past three years. Is it time to move on, or will a change in scenery bring upon an increase in production?
—K.H.

Mat Latos … can he rebound to being an above-average pitcher?
—J.C.

These three questions illustrate difference that league size can make.

In a 10-team mixed league, you can certainly consider trading Dozier, but I’d recommend it only if you’re receiving an underachieving player you might like more. Even before his breakout last year, he was still highly productive for a middle infielder, hitting 18 homers and swiping 14 bases in 147 games in 2013, which was his first full season in the majors. However, Minnesota manager Paul Molitor has Dozier batting cleanup this year, and the second baseman spent all but 21 plate appearances last season hitting either leadoff or second. So if you drafted Dozier for steals, they might be a little tougher to come by, although RBI chances figure to go up.

Both because of his extensive injury history and because he hasn’t tapped into his offensive potential as a big leaguer yet, Lawrie is much closer to a fringe player than Dozier. But if you’re new to the Lawrie experience, know that as a minor leaguer he was actually considered a potential offensive superstar,3 but also a defensive liability without an obvious position. This is his fifth major league season, yet Lawrie’s still just 25 years old. There are plenty of run-of-the-mill third basemen out there who work fine as fantasy placeholders but not much more than that. So if you’re in a deeper league, I’d ride it out a little longer with Lawrie and see if this might be the season in which the light clicks on. In a shallower league, though, he’s waiver fodder.

Meanwhile, Latos is a Marlin, and everyone on that team short of Giancarlo Stanton and Dee Gordon has seemingly come down with Legionnaires’ disease. Despite something weird happening down in Miami, I’d still focus more on Latos’s track record of success and the fact that he’s throwing harder than last year.4 Plus, Latos looked a lot better in his most recent start last Saturday, striking out five batters and walking just one in five innings of work, firing 49 of 75 pitches for strikes. I’m a buyer.

I desperately need starting pitchers. Waiver options are thin right now. Do you have any sleepers that are either struggling in the majors or ready to come up from the minors?
—P.E.

Are there any starting pitchers currently under the radar like Garrett Richards was in early 2014?
—P.C.

I’m in a 12-team, head-to-head league with very active ownership. In a new league with mainly veteran owners, it seems like the streaming isn’t as beneficial as it was for me in years past. I have a struggling Jon Lester and still-injured Alex Cobb, do you see those two having enough to be the anchors I was looking for, or should I start looking for someone else to help out my pitching stats?
—K.W.

I went really late on pitching this year and am starting to wonder if I went too late. I’ve got guys like Drew Pomeranz, A.J. Burnett, Justin Masterson, John Lackey, and Brandon McCarthy. Jake Odorizzi has been my lone bright spot. Should I abandon this strategy and trade some of my elite hitters for pitching help? Or is too early?
—B.T.

No matter how competitive your league is, there are always opportunities for streaming. For instance, I doubt many people are getting too excited about Edinson Volquez in a league that shallow, but he was such a good streaming option as a two-start guy this week against the pushover Twins and then the White Sox that I picked him in my 14-team league and feel great about it. The added beauty of streaming pitchers in and out of the lineup is that if you think you’ve finally found someone who could at least temporarily maintain production above the Wandy Line, you can always keep him around.

That’s especially true among younger pitchers. Maybe you didn’t draft Trevor Bauer in your 10-team mixed despite repeated pleas to do so. But after his hot start, you could reasonably consider him a streaming option, and maybe even someone worth holding all year long, even in such shallow leagues. As for the potential next Garrett Richards, I still like Drew Smyly a lot, and he could be freely available having spent most of this month on the DL. Odorizzi can occasionally get himself into trouble via big innings, but he has strikeout-per-inning stuff and like Smyly benefits from a very pitcher-friendly park. And while Shane Greene’s peripherals don’t match his microscopic early-season ERA, he, too, was a strikeout-an-inning guy last year, he benefits from a much friendlier home park this year, and the Tigers defense is no longer terrifying, as shortstop and the outfield look much stronger than they did last season.

As for abandoning strategies, normally I would advise not panicking based on fewer than three weeks’ worth of games. But assuming you’re not in a really, really deep league, that’s a pretty motley crew of starting pitchers. If you can trade a top hitter for an ace, you could pair that ace with Odorizzi and one or two others, then aggressively stream starters in and out of your lineup based on matchups. Not that you could pull off this exact trade, but ideally you’d want to shop an early overachiever like our pal Nelson Cruz and target someone like Corey Kluber, whose zero wins and two losses belie what’s actually been a great start to the season and what should be another big year.

Is “Mi Familia Jeurys Familia” the greatest team name ever?
—G.G.

No, Vladimir Poutine is the greatest team name ever.

Filed Under: MLB, Baseball, Fantasy Baseball, Roster Doctor Mailbag, Roster Doctor, Kris Bryant, Nelson Cruz, Devon Travis, Brian Dozier, Brett Lawrie, Mat Latos, Garrett Richards, Jake Odorizzi, Trevor Bauer, Drew Smyly, Shane Greene, 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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri