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Trades are rarely perfect. If you play in a competitive league, a great trade isn’t just going to fall into your lap. You need to be realistic. The owner who stole Daniel Murphy in your league isn’t too likely to sell him now. Many times you need to take on an imperfect player who still has identifiable upside. If that upside outweighs the imperfections, that can be a player you target in trade discussions. And that thought brings us to Carlos Rodon.
Rodon hasn’t quite taken the leap many expected him to in his second season. Through nine starts and 52 1/3 innings, he’s amassed 4.47 ERA, 4.24 FIP, 1.47 WHIP and 51 strikeouts against 19 walks. There’s some fantasy value mixed in there, but those numbers don’t exactly scream breakout campaign, especially for the former No. 3 pick in his age-23 season. If Rodon continued exactly along this trajectory for the rest of 2016, it would be hard to call it anything but a disappointment.
Two things should stand out to any fantasy owner looking for starting pitcher upside on the cheap. His pedigree (former No. 3 pick) and youth (just 23 years old) means the highs are a lot more encouraging than the lows are discouraging, so long as they’re not at a total imbalance. With that in mind, we can start to make a strong case for buying Rodon.
Let’s begin with two things every pitcher controls, strikeouts and walks. Rodon’s strikeout rate is essentially flat from his rookie year. He has fanned 22% of the batters he has faced this season, after sending them down at a 22.9% rate last year. It would be nice to see that rate climbing slightly instead of dipping slightly, but there’s still time for that to happen, and, as we’ll show later, the manner in which Rodon is getting his strikeouts is rather encouraging.
Just as importantly, Rodon’s walks are down this year. The free pass was a major issue for him this season. Had Rodon logged enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in 2015, his 11.7% walk rate would have led the majors by a wide margin. He’s still walking too many batters this year, but it’s possible to work around an 8.2% walk rate, especially when you have Rodon’s stuff. Chris Archer, Garrett Richards and Francisco Liriano, for example, all had walk rates of 7.6% or higher last season. Furthermore, the fact that Rodon has cut 3.5 percentage points off his walk rate from last season suggests he’s attacking the zone with more regularity. And that’s where we find the real reason to be excited about what Rodon has done this season.
Rodon tried to be too fine with his pitches as a rookie. A whopping 55.1% of Rodon’s pitches last year were balls. Again, he didn’t have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, but if he did his 44.9% zone rate would have been the 13th-lowest in the majors. This season, 51.7% of Rodon’s pitches are strikes. That ranks 15th in the league, just 0.7 percentage points behind teammate Chris Sale. This season, 17.3% of Rodon’s pitches have been called strikes. Last year, that rate sat at 16.2%. He already has 16 called third strikes this season after having just 25 a year ago. Once Rodon gets five more called thirds with his slider, he will have surpassed the number he had all of last season.
Rodon was able to live on chase pitches when he was dominating hitters in the ACC at North Carolina State, and while he was breezing through the White Sox farm system. He quickly learned it wasn’t so easy in the majors. Now that Rodon is challenging hitters in the zone, he is more often in the driver’s seat. He has cut nearly four percentage points off his hard-hit rate and three off his line-drive rate from last season. His ground-ball rate has ticked up to 49.4%. It’s no doubt frustrating—for Rodon, the White Sox and his fantasy owners—to still see his cosmetic stats, particularly his ERA and WHIP, in the ugly regions, but his underlying performance is unquestionably improving. The upside outweighs the imperfections. Rodon is a strong buy who likely won’t cost you too much if you quickly engage in trade discussions.
Drew Smyly, SP, Rays
Smyly, a popular breakout pick coming into the season, has 63 strikeouts in 56 innings, and chances are his owners are quite happy with what he has given them to this point. But he has not been particularly sharp for the better part of a month, so it might be worth it to check in with his owner. Smyly has failed to make it through seven innings in any of his last five starts, and has completed six in just two of them. In his last three trips to the mound, he has allowed 10 earned runs on 21 hits and six walks in 16 1/3 innings. Smyly has had at least one strikeout per inning in four of his last five starts, but that isn’t as exciting when you’re going five or six innings rather than seven or eight. You’re going to have to give up something valuable to get Smyly, but it will be worth it. He still has the look of a top-25 starting pitcher for the rest of the season.
Jeff Samardzija, SP, Giants
Samardzija is an attractive commodity on the open market because everything about his return to the National League has been for real, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he can pitch nearly this well for the rest of the season, even though his real-life value far outstrips his fantasy value. Samardzija’s strikeout rate is up from last year’s disastrous 17.9%, but he’s still just a bit better than league average at 22.3, and down from the heights of his days with the Cubs. His fantasy value is also a bit inflated by his six wins, a win-to-start ratio that will be hard for him to maintain, even with a solid offense and bullpen at his back. You can hold out for a good price with Samardzija because there’s a strong foundation for his success, but now is an excellent time to make him available.
Lorenzo Cain, OF, Royals
Cain’s 16-homer, 37-steal campaign while hitting .307/.361/.477 was one of the biggest surprises of 2015. He was coming off a strong 2014 season, but never hinted at anything that suggested across-the-board production to that degree was in the realm of possibility. If you can still sell him near the price associated with that production, you’re coming out way ahead for the rest of the season. It’s not that Cain is a total bust—he’s sitting on .296/.348/.432 with six homers and six steals—but it’s that so much of what he did last year hasn’t been present in 2016. He’s striking out more, with a K-rate that is at 23.4%, nearly one-third higher than it was last season. His hard-hit rate is down 5.4 percentage points. He’s hitting more grounders and fewer fly balls, his BABIP is almost identical, and yet his rates are way down. If he continues on this pace, we’re basically looking at a high-priced 2015 Kevin Pillar.
Just because players appear here doesn’t mean they should be held at all costs. More often than not, this space is used to say that what we’ve seen from the player in question this season, be it good or bad, isn’t a fluke. You still might get an offer for him that makes sense to accept. What we’re saying is that the player is not necessarily a sell-high or buy-low, as you might see him tabbed elsewhere. Both of the players in this week’s hold section fit that bill.
Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Cubs
Zobrist has been everything the Cubs hoped he would be and more when they made him one of their big acquisitions of the offseason. The 34-year-old is hitting .338/.449/.517 with six homers, nine doubles, 29 RBI and 32 runs. He has mostly hit fifth this season, but has spent time hitting first, third and fourth, as well, while logging time at second and in right. Zobrist is the embodiment of everything the Cubs want to do offensively, so it’s no wonder that he has fit right in and been the team’s best hitter this season to date. He plays every day, hits in the top half of one of the best lineups in baseball, and brings dual-position eligibility. This is not a sell-high situation.
Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers
Allow us a quick moment to pat ourselves on the back. The following excerpts were from our Kinsler profile during spring training.
Few second basemen are safe bets to reach double-digits in homers and steals, score 90-plus runs, and be lift up your rates. Kinsler is one of those guys.
With those four bats (J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton and Victor Martinez) lining up behind Kinsler, he’s a real threat to lead the league in runs scored.
The fact of the matter is Kinsler is now one of the most underappreciated fantasy players in the game. He doesn’t provide nearly the overall value of Jose Altuve or Dee Gordon. He doesn’t have the power of Brian Dozier or the ceiling of Anthony Rendon or Rougned Odor. He may, however, be the only true five-category player at the position in 2016 and, just as importantly, he is eminently reliable.
It’s safe to say we saw this one coming. Kinsler has exceeded even our sanguine expectations, slashing .306/.354/.519 with 10 homers, four steals and, yes, a league-leading 40 runs. Kinsler is still one of the most reliable players in the league, and he didn’t wait until June to break out the power this season. He has already provided one of the best returns on investment of any player in 2016, and it’s more likely than not that he will continue to do so.