By Eriq Gardner
One of the tougher tasks in fantasy baseball is deciding the appropriate time to let go of an underperforming player.
Cutting bait on high draft investments isn’t easy. Some players have experienced great past success. Some hold the potential for tremendous upside. If you drop one of these players, you’re admitting you were wrong in the draft. You may be giving your competitor an opportunity to capitalize on the mistake of a player dropped too early. Imagining a player finally performing up to expectation on another competitor’s team may be too much to handle.
I call these players “toxic assets,” too much potential value to drop and too little return to do much good. At some point, though, fantasy teams can’t afford to burn valuable roster spots waiting for a player’s fortunes to turn around.
Let’s look at some toxic assets at the moment.
Nate McLouth went in the 10th round on average in 12-team mixed leagues. Despite hitting .160 with just a single home run, four runs scored, and three RBIs he’s still owned in more than two-thirds of all leagues. That’s understandable considering he was a stolen base shy last year of his second consecutive 20/20 season. This time last year, many saw him as a potential 30/30 candidate.
But McLouth is really struggling in Atlanta. His strikeout rate has jumped from a career mark of about 19% before this season to 34% in 2010. He’s taking a few more walks than before, but he hardly seems to be doing anything once he’s on base: no steals so far, not even an attempt.
His lineup opportunity is also slipping. He’s been benched against left-handed hitters. And he’s now played more games this season hitting 8th in the lineup than batting leadoff. Dwindling opportunity makes him a reasonable candidate to ditch in shallower leagues.
Jason Kubel went in the 12th round of average 12-team mixed league drafts. He’s coming off a season where he hit 28 home runs, drove in 103 runs, and nearly hit .300. He’s only put up two homers so far this year and his average his hovering slightly above the Mendoza Line. He’s still owned in nearly every league.
Kubel is suffering from a slightly unlucky hit rate, but nothing too drastic for a plodding batter with no speed. His ISO% is way off from .239 a year ago to .121 at the moment. He’s actually hitting more fly balls now than he was a year ago, but fewer of them are clearing the outfield fence. This could be partially the result of bad luck and cold weather, but the question is whether he’ll have a lot of rope to turn things around.
Kubel is known as a horrible fielder, which limits his playing time in the outfield no matter how much Delmon Young struggles. Kubel has been getting plenty of at-bats at DH, but Jim Thome is nipping at his heels. Thome already has four home runs on the season and shares Kubel’s affinity for killing right-handed pitching. For now, we’d hold onto Kubel, but if he starts getting held out of the lineup on a regular basis, he might also be ditched.
Alexei Ramirez went, on average, in the 10th round of 12-team mixed leagues. He’s coming off a season where he hit 15 HR and had 14 SB at a very thin position. He’s also a guy who has a 20+ HR season on his career ledger. As of now, though, he’s done pretty much nothing yet is still owned in about 80% of leagues.
In 69 at-bats this season, Ramirez has only taken a walk once. That’s extremely worrisome, as his biggest improvement a year ago came from increasing his walk rate from a paltry 3.5% in his rookie year to a more respectable 8.1% in 2009. These days, there’s hardly any good reason why pitchers should feed him a pitch in the strike zone he can hit. He’ll swing at anything.
Alexei is hitting 7th or 8th in the lineup and seems to be a long ways away from making the case he should be batting higher. If he’s really just good for his glove, that hardly makes him much better than the White Sox backup at SS — Omar Vizquel. Of course, Ramirez got off to a terrible start last year too before turning things on. Also, it’s nearly impossible to find a quality SS on the waiver wire. Those are the main factors that would prevent him from being dumped off fantasy rosters en masse.
But Ramirez’s owners may want to watch Chicago’s north side closely. If the Cubs promote super-prospect Starlin Castro anytime soon, and he’s available in your league, it may be time to waive adios to Alexei.
For more on Nate McLouth, Jason Kubel, Alexei Ramirez and other toxic assets, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.