Entering the Stretch

Near the end of July, I got a call from Sam Walker.  Sam is normally a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, but this year he's on sabbatical writing a book about fantasy baseball.  Among the topics he's writing about is this season in AL Tout.  Anyway, he called the day my AL Tout team reached first place for the first time this season.

"So how does it feel?"
"How does what feel?"
"Being in first place."
"Sam, it's July.  It doesn't feel any different than where I was in April."
"But you were in last place in April"
"Y'see how much things can change?"

While it's almost always preferable to be higher in the standings than lower as the year goes on, in most leagues it doesn't really matter much where you are until after the final day.  There're always more games to play.  For example, here we are nearing the end of August, with roughly 127 games already played in the major league season.  That means there are still 35 games left on the schedule.  That's nearly a quarter of the season.  That's six or seven starts for every one of your starting pitchers.  That's roughly 120 at bats for most regulars.  There is still time for guys to get hot (or cold) and those performances to make a significant difference in the standings.  What kind of difference?  Well, I've been in a league where a team made up 11 points in the final three days.  Last year in Tout, I made up five and a half in the final week.

It's also nearing the trade deadline in most leagues, including Tout, so the time to make significant changes to a roster is running out.  If I hoped to stay at the top, I needed to address some holes on the team.  When Jerry Hairston went down for the season, my immediate alternative was to pick up either John McDonald or Alfredo Amezaga.  Considering both players rarely play, that's not exactly a satisfying solution.  I chose Amezaga on the off chance that he might steal a base while pinch-running for someone.  I have also been clinging to the idea that at some point perhaps Scott Spiezio would have a productive at bat or two over the final month and a half.  No such luck so far in either case.  Obviously, something had to be done.  Just a few weeks ago I thought I had corrected the Spiezio situation when I traded Justin Miller for Rob Quinlan.  Two days later, Quinlan tore his oblique in batting practice, thereby granting Spiezio another week of 0-fers. 

I don't know how tough it is to trade in your leagues, but in Tout it's not easy.  For one thing, everyone is very experienced.  Most of the participants are familiar with almost every player above AA.  Very little gets by them; there are few real sleepers.  Secondly, no one wants to be on the bad end of a deal because the league is so high profile.  Making an obviously bad trade does little to help one's credibility when trying to advise other people how to run their teams.  So everyone is overly cautious and therefore haggles excessively, hoping to get some edge, however minute.  And if you are in first place, the haggling is even more intense because no one wants to make a trade that can actually help you.  Far more often than not, your choice is either to not make deals or to overpay when you do.

Which is what I did.  Sort of.  At least in one case.  Since I have an excess of outfielders, I traded Johnny Damon for Orlando Cabrera.  In looking at their career numbers, there really isn't a substantial difference in their ability to produce or the kind of production they offer.  Damon's advantage is that he bats at the top of the Red Sox order while Cabrera gets moved around, so Damon will naturally score more runs and Cabrera drive in more.  Currently Damon has the second most runs scored in the AL, a position that's not likely to change much. Cabrera was having a down year in Montreal before getting traded to Boston, but I suspect he was trying to compensate for the loss of Vlad Guerrero and just hadn't been relaxed at the plate.  Now he's in a very good line-up with far less individual pressure to produce.  He has also shown a knack for elevating his game down the stretch: the last 3 years he's hit .326, .312 and .356 in September.  All in all, it's a fair trade because I get similar production at a position where I had a hole in exchange for a position where I had eight players for 5 spots. 

The second trade I made was Ugueth Urbina plus some FAAB (5) for John Olerud and Lance Carter.  I was at a point where my team could only move up one point in saves, yet could advance 4 points in batting average in fairly quick order if I was able to rid my line-up of some dead weight.  There's only a slight chance I could lose one point in saves - Jeremy Affeldt, Scot Shields and Juan Rincon would have to combine for 11 saves the rest of the way, and that's assuming Bobby Howry doesn't get any - so having Urbina really didn't serve any purpose other than to provide some WHIP and ERA ballast.  Using him to free my daily production of Amezaga (with Cabrera) and Spiezio (with Olerud) seemed like a good idea.  I know there are reservations about Olerud because he looked very old in Seattle earlier this year, but he appears to be re-energized with the Yankees.  Maybe it's the fact that he's in a pennant race and likely destined for the playoffs.  Or maybe he just likes Broadway shows.  Whatever it is, he's hitting .309 with New York and has driven in 13 runs in 18 games with them so far.  I don't expect he'll hit many home runs, although Yankee Stadium's short right field porch is rather inviting for a lefty. But I also don't think this is a temporary surge as he's just a little more than a year removed from a .300 season, so doing it for a couple of months doesn't seem like much of a stretch.  Yes, I overpaid but I think had I kept haggling that not only would I not have found a better deal, but there was a chance that the deadline would have passed without me consummating a deal at all.

Regardless, he'll be better than Spiezio, who couldn't even beat out Willie Bloomquist for a regular spot in the Mariner line-up when Justin Leone went down for the season.  I have to give him some credit, however, as this is in part due to manager ineptitude: even with his pathetic .204 batting average, Spiezio has a higher on base percentage than Bloomquist despite the latter hitting more than 40 points higher.  Spiezio also has a higher slugging percentage, better fielding percentage, range factor and zone rating than Bloomquist.  In short, he is superior to Bloomquist as a baseball player in every respect except speed despite having the worst year of his career.  And yet, Bob Melvin prefers Bloomquist.  Maybe Melvin just doesn't like the musical stylings of Sandfrog (the rock band that Spiezio fronts in the offseason) and this is his way of showing it.  Or maybe he really likes them and he's trying to encourage Spiezio to pursue his musical career.  Only Melvin knows.

There's a lot of baseball yet.  Last year at this time I was in first place by a point.  However, last year, much of my offensive depth was on the DL (Greg Colbrunn, Kevin Mench) and whatever wasn't (Mike Restovich, Antonio Perez) just wasn't that exciting.  I was also tryng to gain ground in offense with Angel Santos and Adam Riggs as regulars and was in close races in four pitching categories with an equal chance of moving down as up.

This year, my lead is three, but I have some depth in the outfield (Grady Sizemore and Joey Gathright are on the bench), corners (ok, Spiezio doesn't count... yet, but I did pick up Calvin Pickering), and the weakest link I have in a regular hitting spot now is probably Joe Crede.  On the pitching side, I have an insurmountable lead (110) in strikeouts with good chances to move up in wins, WHIP and ERA, with only a marginal chance of falling in those categories.   Overall, I'm close enough in 6 categories that I can move up by more than a dozen points total if the final stretch goes well. 

Like I said, there's still a lot of baseball to be played.  Geez, I'm beginning to sound like a character out of "Bull Durham".  Be that as it may, I will close with a quote from Crash Davis: "I'm going to take this one game at a time and Good Lord willing, things will all work out."