I was looking at the standings in the American League Central recently and realized that they looked exactly as I expected ... if I were standing on my head.
Detroit and Cleveland battling it out for last? Kansas City and Chicago duking it out for first?
I'd be shocked, except I'm too distracted by the A's and Marlins thriving with a combined payroll that wouldn't pay off the Yankees' luxury-tax bill.
Cliff Lee's league-leading ERA is lower than Johan Santana's WHIP, Nate McLouth is batting his weight on Jupiter, and Livan Hernandez is on pace to win 30 games, which hasn't happened since Denny McClain did it in 1968, when Hernandez was a rookie.
Just as seeing a Waffle House sign from a highway means you're driving in the South, these sights make it clear: It's early.
Thus, now is the time for you to look around, see who is making rash decisions, and encourage them to make one more with you.
Casing the Joint
When you get your first gig as a fantasy columnist, you're given a laptop with some shortcuts pre-programmed. F5 auto-types "Sell high" and F6 is "Buy low." Well, I'm going to give the old F6 button some action this week, but F5 is going to go unfingered.
While everyone else is offering April's finest flukes for slumping stars, you can cut through the noise by offering something no one else is: your own scuffling studs. Just pick the right ones.
While many of the proven commodities that are currently having issues are bound to figure things out, some won't. A year ago, plenty of fantasy owners went after Andruw Jones, J.D. Drew and Barry Zito thinking they were getting guys who were bound to get better. They didn't. Was Jones trying too hard to earn a big, fat long-term deal in his contract year? Maybe. Were Drew and Zito each adjusting poorly to new teams in new leagues? If so, Drew seems to finally have found his game while Zito has yet to have that mail forwarded to his new address.
So if you can trade a guy you believe is actually in for a down year and get back a player who is a better bet to come all the way back, that's a low-profile, high-return Grand Theft Roto.
When it comes to deciding which stars are fading for real this season, the lessons of Andruw Jones and Barry Zito both are good measuring sticks to start with.
We know that there are some players who raise their games when they see a new contract just five months away. Look at the early numbers of Manny Ramirez, Pat Burrell, and Ben Sheets, all of whom are clearly enrolled in the "Gary Matthews Jr. School for Getting Paid." But when a player starts driving the struggle bus on the road to free agency, it's even harder to turn into the skid and get back on track. Players that fit this profile include A.J. Burnett, Carlos Delgado, Ivan Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia.
In Zito's case, we saw a player who got a big contract despite evidence of some diminishing skills. That's a bad combo because it can once again lead to a player trying to "justify" his payday instead of just playing the game. Hello Eric Gagne and Jose Guillen. Where else have I seen those names together? Oh right, the Mitchell Report. Strangely enough, Andruw Jones' slow start in Los Angeles means he went from one category to another. That's two strikes.
If I can deal either of these types of guys for upper echelon players who are struggling for less-permanent reasons -- a minor injury that left them a few weeks behind, a tough schedule so far, some unlucky bounces -- I'm buying low, but selling lower.
Speaking of buying and selling, let's take a look at ...
Three I'm Stealing
Ryan Zimmerman: I think Zimmerman is one of those players who, while still young, is already the type of player he's going to be for the next decade. A look at his three-year splits show that April is by far his cruelest month -- his April OPS is .671 compared to an overall OPS of .812 -- and the poor guy is getting hosed. His contact rate is up, so it's not like he's swinging and missing, and he has hit the ball in the air 33 times between line drives and flies. Only seven of those baseballs have fallen in for hits. As A.J. Mass pointed out in his column this week, these kinds of numbers don't mean anything by themselves, but in the case of a high-contact young slugger, they are downright bizarre. He's a hot streak away from being where you expect him.
Michael Young: In the past four years, Michael Young hasn't batted lower than .313 or driven in fewer than 91 runs. Through Thursday's games, he was sporting a .234 batting average, despite the fact that he has already taken seven walks, a rate about 50 percent higher than his career average for patience. That's not the portrait of a guy who is falling off a production cliff. It's a picture of a player working on his pitch selection. The culprit is a low hit rate. Young classically has a hit percentage near 35 percent, and he's wallowing ten points below. I don't care what his numbers look like with only a tenth of the season in the books, there are only four or five shortstops I'd rather have on my fantasy team.
Chad Billingsley: If you're willing to speculate, Billingsley's ERA and WHIP -- 5.69 and 1.86 respectively -- look like they fell off the back of John Wasdin's baseball card. But remember, he got jerked around by weather in the first few weeks and ended up pitching relief in a few games after spending all spring prepping as a starter. That's a tough break for a kid whose biggest obstacle is command of the strike zone. His last start included eight strikeouts and only one earned run in five innings. I expect more of those, and this may be your only chance to buy low on a kid who will strike out 180 or more if he starts all season.
Three I'm Dealing:
Dan Uggla: I was a big fan of the Uggla when he first came up, but his stats have become more polarized each year since. His power will continue, but his batting average has dropped as his strikeouts have risen. Batting under .200 and sporting a K/BB ratio of 14-to-four, I no longer believe his "bounce back" is worth waiting for since it might look a lot like Rob Deer in his prime.
Kevin Millwood: Quick, he has a 2.47 ERA! Sell him now before anyone notices that he has struck out only 12 but walked 10. Only one AL starter has given up more line drives than Millwood, and he's among the leaders in fly balls as well. That's bad news when things heat up in Arlington.
C.C. Sabathia: I'll have to respectfully disagree with my colleague, Eric Karabell, who thinks the Indians' "ace" is a buy-low target. My eyes tell me that Sabathia is showing none of the presence he had in 2007 while internal therapist tells me that the biggest free-agent pitcher on the market next year has already done the kind of damage to his ERA that even a month of great starts can't completely salvage, and it's not like great starts are a certainty. As Billy Joel sang, "Pressure!" I'm not selling him for a bag of balls, but if I can get a lesser ace who is struggling to a lesser degree, I'm taking it.
Pulling the Job
Following my own advice from last week -- sell high on Joe Crede -- and some of my words from this week, I made a straight-up offer of Crede for Zimmerman in one of my ESPN public leagues. I played up the fact that Zimmerman was killing the other guy, while Crede was on my bench on most days.
The offer was accepted within the space of a few hours. I'm sure my partner feels like he got the hottest third baseman in the AL for one of the coldest in the NL, but like I said, it's early.
Oh, and for the record, "it's early" is F9 on my keyboard.
Shawn Peters is a fantasy baseball, football and golf analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him your own grand theft rotos by clicking here.