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Using your head

Ask Rotoman: March 8, 2006
 by Rotoman

Send your toughest fantasy questions to Rotoman.

ROTOMAN'S TOP 10:
Players Most Similar to Albert Pujols (through age 25): Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Jimmy Foxx, Hank Aaron, Hal Trosky, Vladimir Guerrero, Orlando Cepeda, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Joe Medwick.


COMPARE

Hey Rotoman,

Pretty simple request, I've just been wondering about Aubrey Huff and Brad Wilkerson. Who's going to have a better year this year and who will be more undervalued?

Huff is coming off the down year for no discernable reason. Is he going to come back to prominence this season? He is surrounded by what is becoming one of the better offenses in the AL, so you'd think he'd be set to achieve. I'm just worried about his downward slide. And, of course, there's his consistent streak of slow starts to worry about.

On the other hand, people are expecting a rebound season from Wilkerson. He played injured last year, at RFK, and now he's at Ameriquest in the middle of the Rangers' lineup. Sure, he strikes out a lot, but I'm curious what his ceiling is in his new environment. I mean, a year ago he hit 32 homers and even stole 13 bases. What's his real ability? How does a better lineup and ballpark affect his numbers?

"Bounceback Pitch"

Dear Bounceback:

The Devil Rays would love to trade Aubrey Huff. They have Travis Lee to play first base. They have Joey Gathright, Carl Crawford, Jonny Gomes and Rocco Baldelli to play the outfield and DH. They also have Delmon Young knocking on the Majors' door. Huff has been the best hitter on the Devil Rays for so long it is hard to imagine the team without him, but he is also the highest paid Devil Ray, is coming off a bad year, will be a free agent after this year, and for this reason, is the most expendable Ray.

As we suggested might happen a few weeks ago, Huff has been playing third base in Spring Training. What we didn't anticipate is that new Tampa manager Joe Maddon would be praising Huff's defense. Given the generally fair reviews of his defense after 2004, you can throw third base -- with offseason acquisition Sean Burroughs in the mix -- and you have seven players vying for five positions (or eight for six).

Huff has always had a problem with consistency, due to a history of getting off to bad starts. Last year, despite a hot stretch during the summer, he was more often down than up and had his least productive season since his "rookie" campaign in 2001. His biggest problems seemed to be a drop in power (fewer homers per fly ball) and a bump in strikeouts. The power drop is part of a two-year decline, and if that continues he's in big trouble.

Huff took some time off early last September for "personal reasons," reportedly because of a family medical emergency. Huff wouldn't talk about what the reasons were: "It's nobody's business," he said. "That's why they're called personal reasons." And he showed testiness about his name constantly coming up in trade rumors. So maybe there was a mental component. Physically, he was tested early in the season with some minor but irritating neck pains, a stomach virus and a twisted knee. Any or all of this could have been the cause of at least some of his struggles.

The bottom line is that Huff is a good candidate to be traded this year, perhaps to a better ballpark to hit in (the Trop has suppressed HR by about nine percent, runs by about four percent in recent years), and has a pretty good history of being a better hitter than he showed last year. Those are reasons to be optimistic that he'll hit the way he did from 2002 to 2004.

Brad Wilkerson, as you noted, moves from a park in Washington that strongly favored pitchers last year (-10%), to the best hitting environment in the American League (+10%). While you can't count on a straight translation using the park factors, the numbers are a strong indicator (especially given his history) that he's going to bounce back.

Wilkerson was also playing hurt in 2005, toughing it out despite an ulnar nerve irritation that disrupted his swing and would not go away. He has a history of back problems, so good health shouldn't be assumed, but last year's problems seem to be behind him. Like Huff, it seems provident to assume he'll return to his 2002-2004 levels, with some small chance he'll bump his power numbers a bit while not running nearly as much. Wilkerson does strike out a lot, a good reason not to expect high batting averages (limiting his potential upside), but he also walks a ton, so the strikeouts aren't really a huge problem.

What does this mean in comparison to one another?

Over the last three years Huff has cost an average of $25, while earning an average of $23. A fair estimate this year is that he'll cost $24 and earn $24.

Over the last three years Wilkerson has cost an average of $20, while earning an average of $14. Expect him to cost $18 and if he's healthy he should earn that.

What's all this humming and hawing about? I think both of these guys are good bets to earn their keep this year, and apart from Huff's trade risk in AL only leagues, they each have some chance to earn a good profit (unless someone else in your league pushes them).

Recommendingly,
Rotoman


COMPARE II

Rotoman:

At the end of last season, I made the decision to keep Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera as my keepers. But this season I am seeing all this stuff about David Wright being the next big thing and some experts have even ranked Wright over Cabrera. Who should I keep, Cabrera or Wright?

"Third Base, Second Thoughts"

Dear TBST:

I'm glad you're not talking about releasing Pujols.

Not many players' careers have gotten off to the tremendous start that Miguel Cabrera's has. He earned $25 as a 21 year old in his sophomore season, and $35 as a 22-year-old last year. A list of hot starting hitters who topped the $25 mark in both the 21st and 22nd year includes names like Cesar Cedeno, Mickey Mantle, Vada Pinson, Orlando Cepeda, Al Kaline, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Albert Pujols. All of these guys had seasons as 23-year-olds that were near the peak of the two years that preceded them.

Given this history you have to predict another $35+ season for Cabrera. He's demonstrated that kind of value. (There is one reason to dock him a little. The hitters on the super-young Marlins are almost completely untested. While they look like they have plenty of potential, these are young hitters learning to hit in the big leagues and in a pitchers park. Florida should be a very low scoring team, no fault of Cabrera's.)

Last year, David Wright had a year in which he earned more than Cabrera, following a very successful half season the year before.

Using the same matching formula, I searched for players who didn't play as 21-year-olds who had decent debuts and excellent sophomore years. The best matches earnings-wise were Bert Campaneris, Jack Clark, Paul Molitor and George Scott, but there were seven others in the pool.

Of the four best matches, all four declined in their third big league season. For Campaneris the decline was small, but George Scott set a record at 24-years-old -- for lowest batting average by a regular first baseman. Molitor and Clark didn't stumble as badly, but they didn't come close to matching their production at age 23. Of the 11, only Luis Aparicio and Dick Allen bested it.

Now, this is hardly the last word in prognosticating. Similarity scores are subject to all sorts of selection biases, and despite all of baseball's seemingly huge history, any similar sample is bound to be very small. There is also the problem of age. In this case, though they turned 23 in different calendar years, Cabrera and Wright are only five months apart.

But similarity scores do help us focus on what we actually know about a player. At age 22 (his "official" baseball age last year), Wright's most similar three players were Ken Keltner, a perennial All Star for the Indians during WWII who stumbled his third year, Dick Allen, who had a monster third year, and Hank Blalock, who hasn't yet had a peak near Wright's.

In comparison, Cabrera is judged similar (by Bill James' method at baseballreference.com) to Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Orlando Cepeda.

There's no comparison, at least not yet, and as much as I like David Wright's game, he has a lot more to prove before he can be considered Cabrera's equal. Keep the Marlin.

Similarly,
Rotoman


CHATTER

Matt Cain: He was very impressive last September, when he led the major leagues in opponents batting average, and he comes with a royal pedigree. But he had more than one walk for every two innings in Triple-A last year, and improved only a little (19 in 46 ML IP) after he was promoted. He has a great arm, an awesome fastball and a tough curveball. He worked on adding a change last year, perhaps one reason he walked more hitters, but until he proves he can get big league hitters out without giving away so many freebies, there's a good chance he's going to struggle.

Troy Glaus: The trail of injuries that follows Glaus obscures his legitimate talent and power. He finally stayed healthy last year and the homers returned, but an awful lot of bad at-bats came along with them. He's turning just 30 this season and is a fine source of power, but given his approach, he's always in danger of hitting .220 on the year. He's best rostered if you're disregarding batting average, especially in mixed leagues.

Jeremy Hermida: Like Cain, he had a brief major league debut and was impressive, partly because he hit a grand slam in his first big league at-bat. He's got great patience, good power and speed, and has shown the ability to adjust his game when necessary. He's the leading NL Rookie of the Year candidate. That said, he's young, struck out a lot last year, has been promoted fast, and has a history of nagging injuries. The temptation is to view him as a certified major leaguer, based on 50-odd major league plate appearances. But like Cain, he's still got a lot to learn. As a result, immediate success is far from guaranteed.


THE BIG QUESTION

Rotoman:

I am in a 12-team AL-only normal category 5X5 League. My draft is a straight pick 'em, down & back (1 through 12 & 12 through 1). Every year I finish in the bottom-half because of my drafting. I use rankings but every year when the draft finishes I usually end up strong on one side and weak on the other (batting or pitcher). One of my problems has been reacting to draft runs at a position (SS, Closers, OF, Starting Pitching, or 1B).

Could you give me some advice on a draft day strategy that would help make me proactive and not reactive? Also, how many of each type of pitcher do you recommend my nine-player pitching staff be made up of (Starting Pitching, Closers, & Relievers)?

"Out of Whack"

Dear Whack:

Unless you play in a no-trade league, especially one that doesn't allow pickups as the season goes along, you can't lose the league because of the draft. Well, check that. I guess you could if you tried. The challenge in a draft is that you can take anyone at any time, meaning you can really make a bad move.

In an auction, there is a natural brake on bad choices. Someone else has to raise you a dollar. Unless they knew you weren't stopping no matter what, their view (and bids) about a player validates yours. But in a draft, you throw out a name and there are always crickets. Select 'Kevin Millbrook' in the first round and you've got him.

In that sense, valuation is much more important in a draft league than an auction league.

That said, you can't just base everything on pre-draft values, either. Values created before a draft is a crude summary of what each player's relative worth is. Once a draft starts and teams begin to fill up, the needs of those teams change, and the ideal price for each player changes. Think of it this way: A team with Scott Podsednik has no need for Juan Pierre. A team that's bought Johan Santana is no longer (usually) in the market for Roy Halladay. As teams fill up, options are eliminated, and some teams flinch.

This is what causes a run on a position or a category. Someone buys a player who offers a specialized skill that everyone wants, other teams panic and then do whatever they can to add other players of that type. Usually, this means taking players who are less valuable rather than players who are more valuable. Your goal, Mr. Whack, is to resist the temptation. While others are losing their heads, use yours. Go for the best player.

The other thing that sets a draft apart from an auction is its orderliness. If you have the first pick (Pujols), you'll have to wait 22 picks for your next chance. As long a wait as that can be (some people put their children to bed between picks or make charcroute garni), as you progress through the draft, the choices get more and more dicey, and the urge to panic becomes stronger. Why not take Jason Varitek in the fourth round? Position scarcity matters, you can claim.

The reason is because position scarcity doesn't matter that much, and there are probably much better players available then. How do you know? Because you've got a list, and you've made notes in each group of 12, highlighting who you want, as well as some alternatives. This pre-selecting (giving yourself options) is essential, since a roto draft requires that you think at least one turn ahead. That is, in each round you have to consider the player you can get with this pick AND who you're likely to end up with your next pick.

If your highest-rated guy is a power-hitting lummox, but it seems likely that all the second-tier closers are going to come out before you pick next (a somewhat simplistic example), take the best closer with your pick. There will be another power-hitting lummox to take next time. How do you know? Because you have a list and he's on it.

How well you juggle this two-picks-at-a-time approach will determine how balanced and valuable a team you come out of the draft with. The big point is that by sticking to the top-rated group of players, you ensure that you're not making any big valuation mistakes. At worst you'll end up out of balance, which will test your skills as a trader, but unless your league doesn't trade it isn't a bad thing at all.

To get back to using values but not using them, it's important to remember that you're putting together a team. If your league is buying hitters, your so-called values may tell you to pick up pitchers. That's good, for a start. But once you've taken a few excellent pitchers, you have to decide to shift back to hitters. Your pitching prices may tell you that they're the best bargains, but that's because they're not reflecting what your opponents are doing. So you have to adjust on the fly.

There are differences, of course, between single-leagues and mixed leagues. The basic rhythm of a draft is to take the best players early, use your draft situation to flesh out your roster in the middle rounds, and take some chances in the late rounds on young or hurt or blocked players. The goal is to get the maximum value, so identifying players who have upside (like Aubrey Huff and Brad Wilkerson) is your best bet.

Finally, your pitching staff. 5x5 rules devalue all relievers, including closers, but the game renders middle relievers undraftable. It's fine (and preferable, perhaps) to grab a middle reliever at times during the season, but you want to have starting pitchers at the start of the season. So, I'd suggest two closers and seven starters, though if you can add a closer-in-waiting it could work to go six and three.

I know, that's a lot of words to say simply, "Make better picks," but I hope you also glean a sense of a way to see how the draft is progressing. To that end it isn't a bad idea, too, to participate in mock drafts and play in some free leagues that draft before your regular league.

Practice makes better.

Until next time,
Rotoman

Ask Rotoman will appear weekly on MLB.com.
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This story was not subject to approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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