Don't Panic

I don't know what I was thinking.  I began the year wondering if I was even gonna play fantasy baseball this year, yet before the end of March, I was an active participant in two experts leagues.  Putting one's reputation on the line is one thing; considering all my other responsibilities - new-born child, burgeoning career, new Star Wars PC game to play - risking one's sanity is quite another.  Anyway, one is sort of a pick-up game - a 14-team mixed league called - Thirteen Experts, a Scrub and a Pizza Place - and the other is pretty serious: American League Tout Wars.

As the season is finishing it's third week, one team is doing very well, the other is struggling.  Which brings up an interesting question: when is the right time to start making moves - dumping players, scouring the free agent pool, making trades?  More specifically, if your team is doing well, are you safe to just sit pretty?  Conversely, if your team is struggling, is it too early to panic?

The Foundation

Right now, this year's incarnation of last year's Sandbox champ - Jumanji! - is cleaning the collective clocks of the mixed league.  A strong draft has certainly helped getting out to a fast start.  One of the things I learned last year in the Sandbox league is that it's a lot easier getting decent pitchers and outfielders late in a draft than it is getting decent infielders then.  So in the early rounds I made sure I took the best available infielders unless there was an obvious choice for someone else.  Of course, if Ken Griffey Jr is available in the 7th round, you take him (as I did).  The second thing I learned was not to worry about getting big name starters, that good second-tier strikeout pitchers will get you pretty much the same result.  These guys may not have had the sexy win totals yet, but the potential is there because they don't really depend on their teammates for anything but run support.  Predicting run scoring is hard enough, but throw in trying to predict defense and you end up with just too many variables to handle with any confidence.  Get a strikeout pitcher and defense becomes less of a concern.

That said, one of the pitchers I was hoping to sneak on to my roster was Roy Halladay.  But I did too much sneaking in the middle rounds and I missed out on him.  However, I did get Kerry Wood, Paul Wilson, Orlando Hernandez, and Mark Prior, who I expect will be striking out big league batters by the first of May.  I didn't think Tom Glavine was as bad as he showed last year, and I read where Sandy Koufax taught him his curve this spring, so he seemed like a good bet to provide ERA stability and a good number of wins.  The team is not too strong on steals or saves, although saves might not be a problem in the second half as Jeff Zimmerman and Matt Mantei are on the reserve list.  At least one of them should make it back by the All-Star break, and that's all I really need to avoid the saves cellar.  While this team does have a few stars, the real strength of Jumanji! is that every spot on the roster will offer above average production.

So should I think that I've got the league won?  Absolutely not.  Standings in the first three weeks of the season aren't that useful other than to determine who gets dibs on the early season free agents.  Always remember that the season is 26 weeks long.  Nothing is won in the first month.  One hitter or pitcher off to a hot start (or cold one for that matter) can skew the standings with so little playing time for the rest of his team.  It's always nice to get off to a hot start, but only because it gives you the upper hand in making deals.

There is definitely an advantage in trade negotiations when other teams are looking up at you in the standings.  You know going in that they want to take more than they give - to both boost their own fortunes while limiting yours.  As long as you understand what you have and what you need, you can control the negotiations.  After all, you don't have to make a deal - you're already doing well.  They, on the other hand, feel some urgency to make a deal because they want to improve.

Getting off to a fast start usually is the result of having a few players start the season hot and having very few players start the season cold.  Hot players are often the targets of trade proposals.  When another owner wants to trade for a hot player, he/she will usually downplay his performance to date.  "There's no way he can keep this up".  However, they always have a seed of doubt that makes them think that he can, regardless of what they say.  Otherwise they wouldn't want to trade for him.  Conversely, how often do other owners ask to trade for some guy hitting .150?  Rarely.  In large part because something inside them tells them that that guy hitting .150 might be done, even if he's only 27.  Nevermind that he's had less than 10% of his total season at bats to this point in the season.  With the distortions to perception that come with the first 2 weeks of the season - "Bonds is on pace to hit 200 homers this season... he might do it!!" - it's much easier to sell high with early season success and buy low on career performance.  So if you're out to a hot start, now is not the time to sit pretty.  Now is the time to bargain hunt.

Stranger in a Strange Land

The Long Gandhi team in Tout Wars is not doing as well.  In fact, they're near the bottom of the standings.  Is it time to panic?  Well, considering that 3 key hitters are hitting around .200, it's hard to say that I've seen the best from my offense.  I've also been the recipient of several completely useless outings from Scott Eyre, Colby Lewis and Hideki Irabu.  And then there's the injuries to Wilson Alvarez, Brian Buchanan and Mark Quinn.  Even Ichiro Suzuki got off to a slow start.  The question shouldn't be whether I should panic or not.  That answer is absolutely not.  The real question is how much more can go wrong?  That answer is probably not much, but a whole lot of things can start going right.

Clearly, Brad Fullmer, Tony Clark and Travis Fryman are not going to hit a collective .190 for the rest of the season.  More likely, they'll end up around .275-.280. as their career averages suggest.  Once Quinn and Buchanan return from the DL, I won't be stuck with 2 null spots in the outfield as I have been for the first 3 weeks.  Once/If Mike Hargrove ever realizes that Gary Matthews Jr is a better option than half of his current options in the outfield - both offensively and defensively - then playing time shouldn't be a problem for him.  Granted, his batting average will be a drag, but he has decent power and speed, and, on a team that desperately needs as many ways to score as possible, a good eye for walks.  Regardless of whether that happens of not, at some point I should get some help from the farm as Borchard, Byrnes and Thames are unlikely to spend the entire year in the minors.  I'm not saying that my offense will be great - it won't.  However, it has the potential to finish in the middle of the pack, largely on the strength of batting average, runs scored and steals.  And that's all I need it to do.

As good as Alvarez looked in his last start, he and Ramon Ortiz should offer nice support numbers from the starting spot to complement the strong numbers from El Duque, Wilson and Halladay.  By "support numbers" I mean WHIP and ERA that won't hurt, plus decent win and strikeout totals.  The injury to Zimmerman seems more serious than once thought as he's had several set-backs.  It wouldn't surprise me if he ended up missing the entire season.  However, that's not a problem for this team.  Rivera and Escobar are having solid seasons and should be capable of keeping my team near the top in the saves category.  With the demotion of John Rocker, the Rangers appear to willing to try Irabu in a new role, that of closer, and so far, he's done well.  If he can keep the job, the saves category will be a strength from which I can trade safely in the next couple of months. Even if no good trade offers avail themselves, having 3 closers is better than having 3 mediocre starters just for the sake of trying to get wins.

One of the things that I tried to show with Projectable Dominance was that a closer like Rivera or Escobar is worth more to a team than having a mediocre starting pitcher.  Although they don't garner the wins, they also have almost no shot of hurting your WHIP or ERA, and quite often end up with as many Ks as guys like Paul Byrd or Scott Schoeneweis.  So a team with 3 good starters, 2 nice support starters and 3 closers should rank among the top teams in ERA, WHIP, saves and Ks.  With so many starting rotations still in flux - KC, Texas, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, Toronto - there's a better than average chance I can find another decent support starter in the free agent pool to strengthen my pitching position.  Who knows, maybe I already have one of those guys in Lewis or Juan Pena.

So is it time to panic?  Certainly not.  This team has started out about as poorly as conceivably possible and they are still very much within striking distance of 75-80 points, which should end up being a very competitive points total down the stretch.  So it'd be foolish to start trying to bolster any part of this team until I see what they're actually capable of doing.  Given the injuries, that might not be for another couple of weeks.  At that point, I should have a good idea if it's time to make drastic changes or not.

Unless your team has started the season red hot and is still in last place, April is way too early to be concerned about the standings.

© 2002, All Rights Reserved