Speculation is the name of the game in fantasy baseball.
Think about it: Success in this game is, in essence, predicting what might happen in a particular circumstance, be it a singular at-bat or inning, a game, a week, a month or a season's time.
So when we approach a date in the major league baseball season as hyped as the annual July 31 trade deadline (the deadline for deals that don't first require the players involved to clear waivers, that is), it's only natural that our speculative juices begin flowing. We crave this kind of stuff -- the mights, coulds, maybes -- which is exactly why, when we hear trade rumors tossed about, we can't help getting excited about what it means for our players in fantasy. There might not be any better example of this than the guy in your AL- or NL-only league who hoards piles of FAAB dollars to buy league crossover players; it's that very individual who sits back, waiting, hoping for something huge and exciting to bid on.
Today, why not appease those antsy fantasy owners, the ones who just can't wait until Saturday to see all these deals?
First off, understand everything in this portion is pure speculation, discussion of trade possibilities that might happen by the Saturday 4 p.m. ET deadline. It's designed to help prepare you to react instantly with roster moves should any of the players discussed get dealt. We'll have trade spins for you for major deals, but in no way should your advance preparation include making rash roster decisions based upon trades that might or might not happen.
Jayson Werth, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: There's talk that he might be dealt in order to financially accommodate a trade for starting-pitching help -- like Roy Oswalt -- and from many Philadelphia papers' accounts, it sure sounds like the Phillies are anxious to move Werth. That's not necessarily a good thing for the outfielder, being that he has .314/.392/.604 (AVG/OBP/SLG) offensive rates at Citizens Bank Park this season, but .259/.365/.414 on the road, the second consecutive year his OPS was higher at home than on the road. Still, with the exception of landing in San Diego, Werth's value shouldn't tumble much if he's traded, but it would be the opening created in right field in Philadelphia that would be most fantasy-relevant. Top prospect Domonic Brown, a .340/.386/.544 hitter in 27 games since being promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, would be a natural choice to inherit the role regularly, but Ben Francisco might also receive a significant bump in at-bats, making him an NL-only sleeper. Francisco, incidentally, has .310/.388/.535 rates in 80 career plate appearances at Citizens Bank Park.
Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chicago Cubs: If anyone's willing to bite on taking on his contract, it's not Fukudome himself who would benefit; it would be Tyler Colvin, who would be guaranteed every-day at-bats. Colvin has started 19 of 22 Cubs games in July and has .232/.300/.476 numbers, but his surprisingly good power might become much more evident with a more regular role in right field.
Jorge Cantu, 1B/3B, Florida Marlins: Talk of him being Texas-bound might be more rumor than reality, but Cantu is apparently on the market, and dealing him would make a lot of sense for the Marlins. Chris Coghlan's injury has already paved the way for top prospect Logan Morrison to see time in left field, but if Cantu departs, Coghlan can return at third base instead of threatening the rookie's at-bats in left, which would enhance his position flexibility in fantasy. Morrison, a .307/.427/.487 hitter in 68 games for Triple-A New Orleans who has demonstrated exceptional plate discipline at the higher minor league levels, has made 19 appearances in left field this season, most of those in recent weeks. If you're in an NL-only league and have bench room to play with, it might be worth stashing him at least beyond the July 31 deadline. As for Cantu, a shift to Texas would be a boon to his offensive numbers, as the difference between Rangers Ballpark and Sun Life Stadium is substantial. Don't trust talk that he'd land in a straight platoon with Chris Davis; a $6 million player like Cantu isn't about to sit that often for a struggling 24-year-old with .213/.283/.277 rates in his past 14 games. Davis, who benefited from the Cliff Lee trade, would be the clear loser here.
Derrek Lee, 1B, Chicago Cubs: Ditto Jorge Cantu, as Lee could be a Rangers target and he'd surely wrest the every-day first-base gig from Davis. That might, however, be the only place where fantasy buzz surrounding Lee would be justified, because he has historically thrived at Wrigley Field (.309/.389/.561 lifetime rates there), and Rangers Ballpark is one of the few venues at least as likely to keep him that productive. The smart move for Lee's fantasy owners is to root against a trade.
Ty Wigginton, 1B/2B/3B, Baltimore Orioles: This Orioles offense is so weak, it has averaged more than three-quarters of a run beneath the big league average. So in the event of a Wigginton deal, his run/RBI potential would increase practically anywhere, and the fact that he can play three different infield positions ensures he'll continue to play regularly for almost any team. Jake Fox might benefit most in Wigginton's stead, getting a bump in at-bats at first base and perhaps offering decent power with the help of a favorable home ballpark.
Jose Lopez, 2B/3B, Seattle Mariners: The most interesting thing about Lopez trade rumors is the impact in terms of position flexibility, because it makes a heck of a lot of sense for him to return to second base for his new team, while Chone Figgins returns to the hot corner in Seattle. Might it be that both players have underperformed simply because of the pressures of adapting to new positions? Perhaps, so a trade at least presents the opportunity to prove otherwise. Getting out of Safeco Field would also benefit Lopez, who has a career OPS 45 points greater on the road. Don't be too hasty to hand second base over to Dustin Ackley should Lopez depart, however, as he's still adapting to the position and hasn't hit for power in Double- or Triple-A. Ackley has an outside chance at making his big league debut this season, but the Mariners might just use fill-ins until next spring.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers: I'd be surprised if he was actually dealt, but his name has been sent through the rumor mill, so he should be included. Imagine Fielder with, say, the Chicago White Sox, in that homer-friendly ballpark. He might yet return to 50-homer status, though more likely next year than this. Ryan Braun's owners have to be rooting against the prospects of a Fielder deal; if Braun's diminished power wasn't enough of a concern, he might see even fewer quality pitches to hit without the big man hitting behind him.
Jhonny Peralta, 3B/SS, Cleveland Indians: He's not too productive a fantasy option as things stand today, but if the New York Yankees are truly interested in him as a reserve infielder, his value apparently does have more room to drop. Such a deal would grant Andy Marte, the one-time top prospect, another opportunity to play regularly. He still does fit the profile of a career Quadruple-A player, but with lifetime Triple-A numbers like his (.280/.343/.499 rates), he'd be worth a roll of the dice in AL-only formats.
Josh Willingham, OF, Washington Nationals: He's maddeningly streaky and his splits unpredictable, so when you look at his .308/.440/.575 rates at Nationals Park and .242/.366/.394 on the road this year, don't assume it means he's destined for failure in a new venue. Those numbers have shifted from home to road on multiple occasions, as well as between left- and right-handers, and it's anyone's guess in what regard he'll succeed with his new team. Chances are, Willingham will remain about what he has been historically: a .270 hitter with 20-25 homer power.
Chris Snyder, C, Arizona Diamondbacks: His being traded would be great for him and great for Miguel Montero, and terrible for whatever other catchers reside on the roster of his new team. Both Snyder and Montero have in the past calendar year proved themselves capable of handling full-time roles, and it seems like their partnership actually has worked against them both offensively of late. Montero hasn't been hitting for much power and Snyder isn't hitting for average, but it's worth pointing out that when Montero was playing regularly in the final two months of last year, he batted .306 with six homers and 27 RBIs in 53 games. When Snyder was playing regularly in the first two months of this year, he clubbed eight homers with 25 RBIs in 41 games.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs: Credit the Cubs for sticking with the 20-year-old even through his adjustment periods, as -- despite a .310 batting average in May, .227 in June and .383 in July, showing how all over the map he has been -- Castro has been in the Cubs' starting lineup for 68 of 71 games overall since making his big league debut May 7. His .383 July mark isn't the only recent positive; he's a .468/.479/.723 (AVG/OBP/SLG) hitter in 11 games since the All-Star break, even chipping in three stolen bases. Castro still has some holes to patch defensively, but his offense seems to be coming along more quickly than expected, which at least pleases fantasy owners more than the opposite, which seems to be the case with a fellow Castro: Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro.
Jack Cust, OF, Oakland Athletics: Who'd have thought a player historically labeled as a "three true outcomes" (walk, strikeout or home run) hitter would be able to maintain a .300 batting average? Sure enough, Cust has, through 52 games, fueled by a torrid July during which he has .327/.465/.782 rates in 17 contests. One statistic that might back up his ability to hit for a career-high average in 2010: His 68.1 percent contact rate is a personal best, even if it's not necessarily a good number for a major league hitter. Expect some regression in the category accordingly, but for now, enjoy Cust's hot streak while it lasts, and don't be surprised if he's capable of another one before the year is done.
Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees: Since Day 1, we've been stressing that Teixeira's owners need to be patient through his cold starts, because he always rewards those who wait during the season's latter stages. Sure enough, Teixeira has put his cold first two months of the year behind him, as our Player Rater demonstrates that he has been the game's second-most valuable hitter in the past 30 days. But let's put his turnaround into statistical perspective, shall we? Teixeira has now had a sub-.900 OPS before the All-Star break in each of the past three even-numbered seasons (2006, 2008 and 2010). In 2006, he had .275/.353/.445 (.797 OPS) first-half numbers, and in 2008, he had .271/.373/.484 (.858 OPS) first-half rates. Guess what? In 2006, he roared back with .291/.394/.604 (.998 OPS) second-half rates, and in 2008 his second-half numbers were .366/.464/.656 (1.120 OPS). Heck, not once since 2005 has he had an OPS beneath .966 after the All-Star break. These kinds of trends are nothing new to Teixeira; he might very well be the second-best hitter in the game from this point forward.
Delmon Young, OF, Minnesota Twins: Quietly, Young is setting all sorts of personal bests this year, his age-24 season, and while his full-season pace of 22 home runs might have some still questioning whether he will ever develop elite power, there is a lot to like about some of the advances he's making. First and foremost is his contact rate, now a career-best 88.0 percent. In addition, while Young is still swinging at tons of pitches outside the strike zone -- 41.0 percent of the time, in fact, according to FanGraphs -- he's also making considerably better contact when he does, 73.5 percent of the time, almost 20 percent better than in 2009 and significantly improved from his 57.1 percent career number. That suggests his performance this year -- including .427/.447/.719 July rates -- might represent legitimate skills improvement. By the way, if you're wondering about Young's prospects of future power, there's even a bit of hope there: His fly-ball percentage is a career-best 37.5 percent, his home run/fly-ball percentage a career-high 11.6 percent, and he's not yet in the age range traditionally considered a slugger's power prime. He might yet have more room for growth.
Carlos Beltran, OF, New York Mets: He has tested his knees by attempting one steal -- which resulted in a caught stealing in his very first game of 2010 on July 15 -- but for the most part has been about as productive in the stolen base category as I expected when I wrote July 6 that "a healthy Beltran who won't steal bases is a .285-25-100-0 type (OK, .285-12-50-0 in the remaining half-season). " The problem, however, is that in addition to his zero-steal pace, he's not contributing in the other categories, going 6-for-36 (.167 AVG) without a home run in 10 contests. Now, it's fair to assume Beltran simply needs to recapture his timing after having missed half of 2009's scheduled games (he played exactly 81 times) and all of the first half of 2010, but at some point fantasy owners can't afford to be patient with him. This is a critical next week or two for determining his value.
Brennan Boesch, OF, Detroit Tigers: People seem so quick to hop off his bandwagon when he's slumping, and he's currently mired in the second slump of his rookie campaign, with just .243/.365/.300 numbers in 20 games in July. Amazingly, though, Boesch has .310/.376/.527 rates in 76 games overall, despite two slumps at least a dozen games apiece in length. Doesn't that sound like a player too valuable during his hot spells to bail on so quickly? Boesch's .273 career minor league batting average and .344 big league BABIP suggest his .310 batting average is probably unsustainable, meaning his value has room to tumble slightly, but there's reason to believe he'll finish with numbers close to his current 22-homer and 94-RBI paces.
Stephen Drew, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks: Might he be one of fantasy baseball's most overrated players? Though he's only 18th-best among shortstops on our Player Rater, Drew remains owned in 84.1 percent of ESPN leagues, probably because he's 27 years old, right in the middle of his prime years, and has always drawn raves from scouts. The results, however, have been disappointing overall in his five big league seasons, particularly this year. Sure, Drew had a hot finish to his rookie year of 2006 and batted .291 with 21 homers and 91 runs in 2008, but if you break down his performance further, only twice in his entire career has he even had an OPS of greater than .773 in any half-season (2006 second half, .874, and 2008 second half, .927). Drew also hasn't hit a homer since May 19, putting up miserable .238/.313/.328 rates in 53 games since.
Nick Markakis, OF, Baltimore Orioles: Another strong candidate for the honor of fantasy baseball's most overrated player, Markakis through nine second-half games has yet to stick to his previous-years trend of heating up after the All-Star break. He has .175/.227/.275 rates during that span, and is a .279 hitter with three home runs and two stolen bases in his past 51 contests, rather ordinary fantasy numbers. If there's any positive about his season, it's that he's hitting left-handers better than expected (.347/.391/.517 rates), but it's hard to get that excited about a player selected 61st overall in the preseason who is on pace for just 10 home runs, 53 RBIs, five stolen bases and 69 runs scored.
Upgrade your roster
As mentioned in the lead story, Brown might benefit most in the event of a Jayson Werth trade, and the very chance that he'll be the Phillies' starting right fielder in their first game after the trade deadline is enough to make him worth stashing if you can at all afford the luxury in your league.
Brown only seems to improve as he ages and reaches the more advanced minor league levels, as he had .303/.374/.546 rates in 102 games at the Double-A level, and now has .340/.386/.544 numbers in 27 games in Triple-A ball. That diminishes the worry of a lengthy adjustment period, something that is always possible for a young player breaking into the majors. In defense of his talent, it's hard to imagine the Phillies, two-time defending National League champions, being willing to deal a veteran slugger like Werth for an untested rookie during the heat of a pennant race unless they fully believed that rookie could handle the challenge.
I've mentioned in my chats previously my concern about Brown making an instant impact -- hinting that, like Florida Marlins rookie Mike Stanton, he might need a year or so to fully adapt. But when it comes to elite prospects, their upside makes them well worth adding, because even if they do struggle initially, there's no shame in cutting them and picking up a more productive alternative.
As for Rodriguez, it's worth mentioning that the Rays are one of the teams linked to trade rumors involving Werth, and such an acquisition would guarantee that Rodriguez is limited to a part-time role for the rest of the year, as right fielder Ben Zobrist would shift back to second base on an every-day basis. Rodriguez's recent performance hasn't justified his presence on mixed-league rosters, besides; he's 3-for-29 (.103 AVG) with nine strikeouts in his past 10 games.
Also consider adding
Wilson Betemit, 1B/3B, Kansas City Royals: With Alberto Callaspo now in Los Angeles, Betemit gets his chance to play regularly at the hot corner. His .270/.340/.459 career numbers versus right-handers hint that he might have some AL-only or daily leagues matchups appeal.
Chris Johnson, 3B, Houston Astros: Though he might never rack up lofty on-base percentages or hit for 30-homer power, Johnson has shown throughout his professional career a penchant for batting averages in the .280s with modest power (think in the high teens for a full big league campaign). NL-only owners can use that, and those in deep mixed formats might find him useful, too.
Jose Tabata, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: At the bare minimum, he can help you in terms of stolen bases, especially if you consider the fact that he has a .350 career on-base percentage in Double-A ball, .358 in Triple-A and now .347 in the big leagues. Tabata is also a .317/.378/.439 hitter in July, so this is a streak worth exploiting.
New position qualifiers
Five games: Brad Eldred (1B), Jake Fox (1B), Tyler Greene (3B), Willie Harris (3B), Jonathan Herrera (SS), Paul Janish (2B), Ryan Langerhans (1B), Donnie Murphy (SS), Cody Ransom (2B) and Adam Rosales (OF).
One game: Wilson Betemit (OF), Jason Bourgeois (2B), Alberto Callaspo (OF), Alberto Gonzalez (1B), Alex Gordon (OF), Howard Kendrick (1B), Jeff Larish (1B), Jed Lowrie (2B), Will Venable (1B) and Danny Worth (3B).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.